Fun as food trends often are, they do tend to have short shelf lives: before you can say the words “coconut” and “oil” the foodies have moved on to the next thing. Occasionally, though, you’ll get one that sticks around, because it doesn’t have a sell-by date. This season’s contenders are sustainability and waste – particularly of food – and unless you’ve been living under a lettuce leaf you’ll know that the call for open supply chains and ethically sourced produce is growing.
In 2014, the zero-waste restaurant Silo opened in Brighton; just before Christmas, chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his War on Waste TV series and an excellent cookbook about leftovers; and a month ago London’s no-waste restaurant Tiny Leaf opened. It’s all good stuff, but surveying the restaurant landscape there’s a huge difference between lots of people talking about doing something and those who actually do. So a fortnight ago, I was sent to check out Silo to see whether, nearly 18 months on, it still stands by its agenda. The restaurant’s creator is the young chef Douglas McMaster (who wasn’t cooking on our visit).
Working at Fergus Henderson’s St John, he picked up the maestro’s nose-to-tail philosophy; living in Australia for a spell, he was also influenced by the sustainable artist and architect Joost Bakker. The two piloted a zero-waste restaurant – also called Silo – in Oz, before McMaster returned home to do his own. We trundled down the hill from the station, towards the low-roofed houses and boutiques that form the northern end of the Lanes. My advance reading had told me that Silo opened here as a “pre-industrial food system” with the stirring mission statement: “Conceived from a desire to innovate the food industry whilst demonstrating respect”.
I learn that it was designed “with the bin in mind”: they have a compost machine, don’t just make their own bread but mill their own flour, brew and ferment drinks (served in jam jars to prevent energy wasted recycling them), churn butter, use as much of any animal they cook as they can, and have “upcycled” most of the interior (old filing cabinets turned into hardy steel tabletops, wooden crates crafted into – buttock-tinglingly uncomfortable – chairs). Once past the coffee machines, pastry counter and aforementioned flour mill, Silo is spacious, simply designed and only discreetly eco-friendly – a home-made canteen of sorts; in fact you could very easily saunter in without any prior knowledge of its radical policies and think you’d landed in a nice room that played the Stones overhead. “We could be in Australia or California,” said my friend, looking at the whitewashed walls, wooden floors, blackboard menus and sacks of flour.
The restaurant’s main feature is a vast, open, wooden-countered kitchen at which we gazed with longing. An easygoing waitress explained that we could pick from three starters, mains and puddings (each subdivided – a bit puzzlingly in the case of puddings – under the headings “plant/fish/meat”; the dinner menu is split into “herbivore” and “omnivore”). She added brightly that things “change gently with the season”. A three-for-£7 deal on home-fermented drinks meant we could pick nice blackcurrant cordial, refreshing, faintly lemonade-like “water kefir” (“an active healer with a citrus base”), and an earthy, fizzy, vinegary thing that smelt like feet but was actually the fermented tea drink kombucha. The waitress admitted she knew nothing about wine, and served our mostly good, reasonably priced (£16 for three), organic wine flight without explanation.
The cooking was lovely, bar a few off dishes. First a pretty board (made of melted-down plastic bags) of “48-hour sourdough” and butter “made with milk from Sussex cows” was served. Two days sounds like a lot for dough, but this was fluffy with a dark, even crust. The butter, though, tasted so wildly tangy that we wondered if there was a cow out the back. What came next was startlingly good: fat yellow ochre mussels in their own broth, with “tagliatelle” of leeks layered up and that distinguished flavour of wild garlic oil. Then, tasting very simply of themselves, with crisp and brown outsides and chewy innards, a crowd-pleasing pair of Jerusalem artichokes, briefly deep-fried, with heaps of fermented white cabbage and blue cheese. The next run was weaker. Ox heart pieces were hard and only slightly meaty, even by contrast with an accompanying carpaccio of fresh swede and the lovely garlic oil. Cod “poached” in rapeseed oil was wishy-washy, and not helped by its pungently fishy broth and flecks of seaweed.
Our scrumptious, skilful puddings were an intense, floral combo of rhubarb, malt crumb, rose ice cream and pine oil; and a bowl of fizzy, sherbetty sea buckthorn granita and jelly, with sourdough ice cream and crumbles of honeycomb and bee pollen – like a grown-up version of my childhood favourites, Crunchies and Nerds. Silo feels like a low-key hippyish place to which anyone could come and be (mostly) well fed and looked after. On that basis alone, it’s a good place to be. But the fact that it does all that with an eco hat on makes it even better.
Originally published in The Telegraph