The “Jones Family Project” lies on that thoroughfare of EC2 ostentation, Great Eastern Street, that pulsing artery that cuts a diagonal swathe through Shoreditch before disgorging into Commercial Street. Shoreditch, in recent years, has threatened to follow the fate of Soho, that erstwhile haunt of poet, prostitute and publican that is now home to baristas, weekend chavs, IT specialists and the occasional studied tourist wondering if this is the self-same Soho famous for its poets, prostitutes and pubs. The down-at-heel creative pioneers who set sail on their fixies to found Shoreditch twenty years ago have either become wealthy on their promise or been driven further east to Walthamstow or Margate. Now one can barely turn round without falling through a door of a kitchen or club attempting to lever into your maw Asian-fusion, Modern European, Zeitgeist Bavarian or hand you a test tube of craft beer distilled at 2,439 m. The “Jones Family Project” professed to specialise in steak. My question was, does Shoreditch need another steak house? Indeed, does it need another restaurant full stop?
The entrance was low key enough, practically insouciant, with its darkened glass and the name written up in cursive neon. Was this the right place?
Opening the door I was met by a blonde with a clipboard perched behind a tiny table. Dear God! Let this not be another member’s club in which I must somehow wheedle entry. (I tend to live by Groucho Marx’s maxim; “I would never join a club who would have me as a member.”) But no. This was the right place, and what’s more, I was welcomed with unfeigned friendliness.
Wandering through into what I expected would be the restaurant but was in fact a bar, I was struck by the final piece of a picture which just then emerged – that the place had the whiff of the speakeasy. The lighting was low and moody, there were leather banquettes down one side and the tall vertical box cupboards behind the bar which held glasses and bottles of booze rotated on metal poles to reveal coffee cups and saucers. Presto! In the day the bar becomes a café! For a moment the twenty and thirty somethings lounging in easy conversation were all looking at me in mute suspicion, their fedoras shadowing their eyes.
The restaurant is located downstairs and it was to here that I now trod. Leaning gregariously against another bar I was introduced to the creators of this enterprise – husband and wife team Duncan and Anna Watts and Amit Joshi. (A fourth member, head chef Cristiano Caputo, was absent – presumably conjuring in the kitchen.) Alas there wasn’t a Welshman between them. No Uncle Ivor regaling diners with tales of crepuscular drinking bouts with Richard Burton or Ma Myfanwy baking laverbread in the kitchen and serenading the sous chefs with stabs of her contralto solo. However, the group have worked together for twenty three years, first at “Pitcher and Piano” (Duncan Watts was one of the founders) and later at “Rocket”; the bonds forged through the fire are as close as family (and in the case of two of them, are actually so.) Without a shared name Jones was eventually settled upon with its’ feeling of soundness and plain speaking.
By the time my date arrived I was already two cocktails down and with the light, punchy banter, three quarters of the way to becoming a Jones myself. The restaurant prides itself on its cocktails and they have an extensive list, one, it seems, to suit every palate. My particular poisons were “Don’t Get in a Muddle” (Hendrick’s, cucumber, lime and Prosecco) and Saffron Sour (Absolut, saffron syrup, lemon juice, orange bitters and egg white.) I am no expert but they were rather exquisite; a little too good – I downed mine like Sicilian lemonade.
With my pathetic tolerance levels I was borderline drunk when they showed me to our table. To my left my view was obscured by a square pillar on which the entire building appeared to rest. To the front my view was obscured by a group of men on a stag, all with beards of varying length. I couldn’t see the menu nor could I hear my date, which was just the way I liked it. Lunch seemed like an impossibly long time ago. I felt like a man settling down after a hard day of Ramadan. I was ready to… eat.
For once choosing was not an issue. We were at a steak restaurant. I would have steak. Naturally. And for me, meat, and steak in particular, does not deserve the name unless it is marbled liberally with fat. I selected the 350g rib eye. (To be fair, the “Jones Family” does not cater exclusively for carnivores although it serves them well – there were decent salad, risotto and fish options on the menu and gluten-free ones as well.)
But first it seemed rude not to properly prepare the palate and to inspect some of the smaller dishes. The Corn Bread was listed under “Nibbles for the Table”. I confess I wolfed rather than nibbled. The accompanying “smoky chipotle butter” was divine. My date, among her many intolerances, has a gluten one. Alas for me the Corn Bread came without this customary wheat accompaniment.
In a weak attempt to show that we were not gluttons we decided to share a starter – the “Crispy squid with lime mayonnaise and chilli mango sauce”. It came stacked six inches high. It was decent rather exceptional but at such a volume – I fear two would have defeated us or left little space to follow.
The steak was everything that a steak should be – thick, tender, nicely marbled, the right side of pink and gloriously seared on the outside. (The steaks, supplied by artisan butchers “The Ginger Pig”, are apparently cooked on something called a Josper Grill, suspended over charcoal at a very high temperature so that the outside caramelizes, then removed so that the inside cooks through at rest.) It was also goliath, the size of a small animal in its own right. Taking the edge off the meatiness were some steamed seasonal green vegetables in a tasty chilli, sesame, honey and soy dressing and obligatory “big chips”. Sadly, I overlooked the “Truffled Macaroni Cheese” which is one of their signature dishes.
Whilst I was wrestling with my monster, my date was scaling the face of her “Fritto Misto” – a veritable mountain of “cod tempura, crispy squid, garlic and rosemary king prawns, chips and salad with both a chilli, cumin and lemon sauce and a pickled ginger and lime tartare sauce”. She scarcely made it out of base camp when I pitched in. Alas for my unspoilt record, neither was I to summit.
Despite reeling from defeat, the garret starvelings we once were prevailed and we went halves on a “Bean vanilla and passionfruit cheesecake mousse with Jones’ seed and nut granola, tuille”. It was gorgeous but built for two. We barely made it halfway. All this washed down with Champagne, Prosecco and a fine glass of “Picpoul de Pinet Domaine Roquemolière. We were finished.
I liked the “Jones Family Project”. I liked its openness to experiment and its sense of fun. I liked the fact that it has two bars and that you could come for a drink, even downstairs, without obligation to dine. I liked the fact that during the day you could sit down to coffee without imagining that you were doing so in a bar. It was sophisticated without being stuffy. Most of all I liked that the food was hearty and unashamedly comfort-based and as generous as a Jewish mother. Admittedly not all of it worked. Some things felt gimmicky; the main dining area was the least successful space to my mind with its screens and carpet which hemmed in and muted the experience. But as suggested in the last part of the name – “Project” – this was an evolving beast and I’m sure in time it will find what works best.
Does Shoreditch need yet another restaurant? On the evidence of this the answer might just be a yes.
The Jones Family Project, 78 Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3JL. Website.