I met a foodie at the bar of Tayēr + Elementary back in October and we chatted about life, food, cocktails and wine. He asked me to recommend a wine region to visit, I told him about Priorat, and he went there a few weeks later. I asked him for restaurant recommendations for my next time in London and, among many others, he suggested 12:51, so I booked. And I booked for Sunday Roast instead of the 5-course tasting menu for which 12:51 is perhaps better known because I had missed Sunday roast on my last two Sundays in London. So I insisted on working one into our schedule the third time around, but I also wanted to try James Cochran’s jerk buttermilk fried chicken so voilà: Sunday Roast at 12:51.
Originally from the town of Whitstable in the east, James was born to a Vincentian mom and a Scottish dad, a joint heritage that shines through in his bold and ballsy cooking. His menu reads like a timeline of his culinary upbringing – his jerk fried chicken no doubt influenced by his mum’s West Indian cooking, a creative oyster dish telling of his first chef job at Wheeler’s Oyster Bar, the inventive flavor combos of his time spent with Brett Graham at The Ledbury, and the homely comfort-food element of his work at (also Brett Graham’s) Michelin-starred pub The Harwood Arms. He opened 12:15 on Upper Street in Islington in 2018, the same year he won Great British Menu, which he won again two years later. During lockdown James also opened Around the Cluck, a fried chicken burger spot that has become an Islington staple. And though 12:51 is today perhaps best known for the 5-course taster, which features daring ingredient combos (e.g.: cured mackerel, rhubarb, blood orange and dill or fermented celeriac, confit egg yolk, XO emulsion, apple, celeriac tea, nasturtium and marigold), the Sunday roast has been making waves as well. It regularly pops up on “London’s Best Sunday Roasts” lists and, after dining there, I understand why.
We started out with a pair of Jersey rock oysters, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried to crispy perfection. These were served on the half-shell in a pool of very frothy, foamy and airy-light peppercorn sauce and sprinkled with thin shavings of cured beef, whose nutty, umami vibed nicely with the acidity and heat of the pepper sauce and the low-tide brine of the oyster.
Chef James’s Jamaican jerk buttermilk fried chicken came next, his best known dish. The chicken thighs were left to marinate in buttermilk and jerk spice for over a day, the acids denaturing the protein and leading to super soft, tender bits of dark meat. These were then coated in a combo of tapioca starch and semolina and deep-fried until golden brown. They were served with the chef’s signature Scotch bonnet pepper jam, which brings fabulous layers of acid, sweetness and heat to the already well-seasoned chicken. Crushed corn nuts sprinkled over the top add a pleasant sandy texture, while coriander cress contributes a pop of freshness and color.
And then the roast began, but first a very spicy Bloody Mary made with Black Tow vodka, spiked with Scotch bonnet pepper jam and served with a piquant tajin rim. We got our individual plates before the shared items came, and kept coming, rich and tasty British banchan that ended up totally covering our table.
The star of the show was the savory, juicy 42-day-aged Irish beef sirloin, which was roasted to a perfect blush pink and served with a sprinkle of coarse salt that brought out its mellow umami. Next to that was a handsome wedge of smoky, char-grilled Hispi cabbage, drizzled in a tangy seasoned mayo, a chunk of sweet roasted onion doused in smoked bone marrow gravy and a golden pillow of Yorkshire pudding, crispy on the outside and eggy, kind of chewy on the inside. A generous bit of extra gravy was provided in a gravy boat on the side, which we poured all over everything, making especially sure to get the delicious liquid deep into the nooks and crannies of the pudding. It was smoky, nutty and packed with beautiful beef essence, a silky-smooth, fatty blanket of flavor.
As if the sirloin wasn’t enough meat, a bowl of slow braised beef brisket was served on the side. Nothing particularly fascinating about this dish, just really nice, juicy beef served in shreds with some chives sprinkled over. Perfect to tuck into the grooves of our Yorkshire pudding and wet with a bit more gravy for a delectable meat-and-pastry mouthful. Yum.
That truffled caulifower cheese tasted like playing hookie from school on a Friday afternoon. Buxom, bumpy florets were mixed up in a creamy, cheesy bechamel, topped with oodles of grated cheddar and baked until everything came together. Truffle was incorporated with a very light touch, adding just a hint of its earthy, funky essence instead of overpowering the delicate sweetness of the cauliflower and nutty cheese. A very decadent and tasty gratin.
But let’s talk about the potatoes, a humble ingredient elevated to its highest form. The perfect two-bite chunks were roasted in beef drippings, giving them an extra bit of savory, umami flavor. They were spectacularly crispy on the outside and creamy yet firm inside and they were served with this divine whipped horseradish cream, which lent the perfect sinus-clearing heat to each bite. Awesome.
I have only good things to say about this meal at 12:51 by Chef James Cochran. The food was fantastic, the portions generous, the deal fine for £26 a head. Service was fast and perfectly pleasant, the vibe was on point, the Bloody was strong. I only wish we could have stayed another 15 minutes before heading out to catch the Stansted Express.