Review – Kooks
One should never judge a book by its cover, nor a restaurant by its press release, as it turns out. When I first read about Kooks, a new North Laine “boho bistro” (no, I’m not sure either), owned by an international DJ and built around a music theme, I have to admit I was expecting the place to be a bit pretentious.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Relaxed, welcoming bistro
Kooks is a lovely little spot with a relaxed, welcoming vibe from the moment you walk in. The wooden bar lined with plush pistachio bar stools is instantly inviting and a great place to perch over cocktails, the large windows overlooking Gardner Street making for excellent people watching.
Tables for two with mismatched chairs flank the wall opposite, while steps lead up to an airy, bright level at the back, great for larger groups. Throughout the restaurant, the lighting is low and flattering; the music, as you’d expect, well-considered yet unobtrusive (owner Tim Healey has created bespoke playlists for different times of day).
Specially commissioned murals by Brighton-based multimedia artist Ste McGregor decorate the walls, while framed classic records are a given. It’s classy, cool and tastefully done – thankfully about as far removed from a naff music-themed restaurant as you can get.
The menu is modern British, with influences from places Tim has visited on his travels – Turkish vine leaves with spiced rice; a Brazilian pudim de leite, and one I immediately honed in on: a Scandi-inspired starter of smoked salmon and spiced beetroot (£5.50). Perfectly-pickled beetroot gave a sharp, sweet kick – bang on with the fatty salmon – while a mint and horseradish cream packed a lovely, herby punch. I liked this a lot, plus the portion was generous, despite the low price tag.
Twice-cooked pork belly cubes with fennel and cumin (£5) were meltingly soft with a crunch of crackling, and possibly the most moreish things I’ve eaten in months. We ploughed them into our mouths, pausing only to sip on a gorgeous tempranillo, a mere four quid a glass.
Unfortunately, parma ham with melon, mozzarella and mango purée was something of a disaster. The plasticky ham, rubbery cubed cheese (why not gorgeous, milky buffalo mozzarella?) and tasteless melon were a real disappointment. Simple dishes like this rely entirely on the quality of their ingredients, and in this case didn’t deliver. Compared to the other two fantastic starters we’d shared, it jarred a little.
Moving on, sirloin with baby charred leeks was very good, reasonable too at £15 including fat, hand-cut chips, while the garlic and parsley in the chimichurri sauce (a nod to Argentina) added zing and warmth. I fancied something lighter, so opted for a chicken breast in a parmesan and herb crumb with a salad of quinoa, orange and fennel (£13).
The chicken was juicy, its crumb good and crisp, but the whole dish was under-seasoned and pretty underwhelming. It was also the kind of thing I’d quickly throw together for a weeknight supper in front of the telly, and I chided myself for not getting down and dirty with the Kooks minced steak burger instead.
Despite a few niggles with the food, I’ll definitely come back here, even if just for an aperitif and bowlful of those pork cubes at the bar, tapas-style. Kooks is affordable, laid back and a lovely space to sit and eat, and Tim is so enthusiastic and a really nice guy. A welcome addition to the ‘hood.
Kooks, 56 Gardner Street, BN1 1UN – 01273 673045
First published in the Brighton & Hove Independent – Friday 26th June 2015