It’s impossible for Zoë Perrett to write about Acme Fire Cult without a religious zeal which reveals that the clue’s very much in the name when it comes to this Dalston not-quite restaurant…
It’s taken me a good long while to put pen to paper – or more accurately, finger to keyboard – to write about Acme Fire Cult. Yet since moving back to London from Leeds in March, it’s the restaurant I’ve returned to most frequently; indeed, the one I’ve visited with almost alarming frequency.
Law of averages would suggest that over the course of all those leisurely lunches and drawn-out dinners – I’ve never managed to ‘pop into’ Acme for less than three hours – I’d have encountered at least a few dud dishes. But not really; leading me to dub the ‘Cult ‘The Restaurant That Can Do Exceptionally Little Wrong™.
TRTCDELW™ doesn’t just do right when it comes to the food. Having both had their fair share of bumps in their respective personal roads, Acme’s chefs/co-Cult leaders Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins make much of mental wellbeing and work life balance; yielding a team of happy, energised individuals who all seem genuinely delighted to be involved in such a place (which I suspect is down to the carefully-cultivated working environment and not shamanic wizardry, nor cult-style brainwashing).
‘Restaurant’ is actually a bit of a misnomer when it comes to Acme Fire Cult. Located within 40 Foot Brewery down a side street whose entrance is landmarked by the notoriously rambunctious Kingsland Road McDonald’s, it sprawls across a heated terrace housing the massive barbecue from whence everything on the menu comes, and a series of bench tables which remind me fondly of attending sitty-downy raves when socially distanced seated clubbing was the only kind permitted. From giant speakers pumps a plethora of genres from acid house to power ballads to swamp rock in no fathomable order, like someone with really good music taste has left their iPod on shuffle. It’s gloriously like hanging out at a festival. There’s inside seating too, but it’s really all about the vibes outside.
Featuring ferments, pickles, spice blends and all sorts of other alchemical ingredients from the apothecary of Clarke’n’Watkins, Acme’s menu evolves constantly, but retains the same format: a concise collection of snacks, smalls, larger plates and a couple of puds.
Whether you slowly deliberate your dish choice over cocktails and a house-Marmite-butter-drenched, pecorino-showered mound of Dusty Knuckle sourdough cubes, or simply stab your finger at a random selection, you’re guaranteed to be in for an absolute winner dinner, of which the highlights will very probably be the entirety of what you ordered.
The biggest mistake you can make at Acme is failing to come with a crowd: this is not a spot to hit up with a crowd any smaller than four or you’ll do both yourselves and the menu an injustice.
Whatever your party size, order generously and prepare to share, cause everything’s designed to be eaten family-style. There’s always enough new stuff for even the most regular of regulars to get stuck into, but you’ll also often find items re-appearing on the menu in slightly different guises dependent on what produce is good, which ferments have come to fruition, and just how the wheels happen to be whirring in the Cult’s chef’s minds on any given day.
Vis roasted English baby corn in Aslam’s Butter with guindilla chillies & PPOs* (Pickled Pink Onions, do keep up), which I’ve also enjoyed as a roasted cauliflower edition. Wherever it’s given a cameo, that butter/spiced elixir makes the dish – much like those actors whose split second appearance turns a good movie magnificent. The Hearth Veg plate is another ever-evolving must-look-out-for: always spanning a spectrum of textures and flavours; rarely comprising the same components.
To list every great plate I’ve eaten at Acme would be to go far too James Joyce for the modern attention span, so I’ll stick to the banger-iest of the bangers: Dorset crab layered generously with bone marrow atop a slice of toasted sourdough, all that richness countered with a tangle of salted cabbage and a slick of jalapeño verde; char siu monkfish with fennel pollen whose liquorice note enhances char siu’s characteristic five-spice flavour; silken roasted leeks with pistachio romesco (a dish best served cold OR hot, I should know, I’ve savoured it served both ways); dry-cured sea bream swimming in an oil whose flavours pay homage to Dalston’s plentiful Turkish oçakbasi restaurants; roasted celeriac with mushroom-kelp XO, white bean miso and salsa verde…
I’m finding it hard to continue without downing tools to immediately book my next visit, but we all must suffer for our art so on I’ll soldier: smoked potatoes with tahini mayo and seed rayu; slow-roasted cod with creamed coco beans and ‘really good mushrooms’ in which the shrooms are that but the whole shebang is really really very good indeed; Trombetta courgettes with crispy black chickpeas, crispy-fried curry leaf and Vadouvan-spiced butter – a dish that’s soooo umami, ooh daddy, and indeed all your other relatives too.
You’ll notice I barely mention the meat, although it’s there and of course it slaps: think Silk road lamb skewers, Swaledale mutton merguez, Tamworth pork chops with smoky mojo rojo, bavette with ancho koji, mustard greens and pickles. But with the majority of the menu fully plant-powered, this barbecue joint is open to all, and very much not the sole preserve of the carnivorous customer.
In short – well, actually quite long, but what’s a word count when such an ace place is in the spotlight? – Acme Fire Cult is an absolute triumph; and an absolute joy to dine at. All brilliance, no bombast; just plates created with the non-shouty nonchalance we’ve come to expect from Andrew Clarke, who over the course of his career has never made much fanfare about his fantastic way with flavours, but has also consistently delivered some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, simply because he’d be hard pressed to create anything less.
It feels like he’s found a very worthy collaborator in fellow chef Daniel Watkins – and Acme is the pair’s perfect playground. I’ve fully drunk this Cult’s Kool-Aid, and it tastes every bit as good as everything else they’ve put in front of me.
MAKE IT HAPPEN