There’s no cooking by numbers at 12:51
27 June, 2019 — By Tom Moggach
12:51’s roast haunch of new season lamb, sheep’s curd, Roscoff onion, Dorset clams, mint gremolata and almonds
JAMES Cochran is a chef who is relentlessly experimental – starting with his restaurant’s odd name. The place in Upper Street is called 12:51, a numerical combination I find tricky to remember.
A waiter told us it was a song by The Strokes, the first on the chef’s playlist when he ran a pop-up a decade ago. It’s been a white-knuckle ride since then, winning the BBC show Great British Menu and losing a legal battle with ex-financial backers who secretly trademarked his own name.
For the past year, Cochran has been at the helm of 12:51, serving up highly creative cooking influenced by a Scottish and St Vincent heritage and early years growing up in Whitstable.
We visited for dinner, opting for a five-course tasting menu for £35 – a special BYO deal every Monday and Tuesday.
The site is near Almeida Theatre: two narrow deep rooms, one stacked on top of the other. On the walls, there’s black and white photos of Whitstable, an exhibition of dot paintings and rope-strung shelves bearing Cochran’s well-thumbed cookbooks.
The music is kicking; cocktail shakers are rattling. 12:51 is far too cool to suit stuffy business meetings or a corporate shindig. “It’s the kind of place you get taken by your publicist or agent,” said my guest, who works in the media.
Cochran’s accomplished cooking reflects stints working in high-end restaurants such as The Ledbury in Notting Hill, which holds two Michelin stars.
Expect flashes of cheffy technique: nuggets of dehydrated Berkswell cheese, cured egg yolks and even blobs of a hay – yes, hay – purée.
The signature snack is a stunner: buttermilk chicken with jerk spices, fried with cunning crunch and served with a crumble of corn nuts, coriander micro shoots and a feisty chilli jam.
The rest of our meal was a roller-coaster, with flashes of brilliance and a few duds. Flavours throughout were bold and punchy; some dishes too salty for my palate.
A high point was a bowl of finely chopped discs of French bean tumbled with peach and dusted in crushed hazelnuts.
My braised pork shoulder was cooked to perfection, although the flavour fought against some pickled kimchi; a dainty asparagus dish was ravishing on the eye.
A low moment was our inelegant pudding: chocolate mousse and a quenelle of yoghurt ice cream buried under crunchy cereal.
The drinks list features craft beers from Peckham and inventive cocktails such as “Beets & Rhyme” shaken with beetroot, a London vodka, jalapeno, lemon and egg white.
Prices can be punchy if you splurge. But they offer three plates for £15 on weekday lunchtimes; on Sundays try Cochran’s legendary roasts, with goat cooked three ways.
It’s rare to find a chef who is this bold and creative. “When he goes on holiday it’s a nightmare,” admits our waitress. “He basically writes a whole new menu when he comes back. But it’s fun and keeps us on our toes.”
107 Upper Street, N1