12:51 at The White Horse, 20-22 Peckham Rye, London SE15 4JR
12:51: Not quite one
There's something about Peckham that would have you assume it can pull off any crossover of culinary themes in any location- that its gilded hand of gentrification could turn itself to anything. So when hearing that the much-lauded James Cochran of 12:51 was making a cameo on the pass at The White Horse, it conjured up a Del Boy confidence and was booked immediately.
The seal is popped with a rather generous ‘snack’ of fried chicken is an edible version of my concerns. Brilliant technique, a scotch bonnet jam that is deeply fruity with a heat that loiters with afterglow. The corn nuts are a great touch- that toastiness adding another dimension to what the already substantial breading offers, the young coriander contributing as more of a garnish than any hand in the dish as a whole. Unfortunately, it’s served heaped up in a little bowl, meaning all that work is suffering underneath from this pile-on; it’s soggy, the coating flopping off whilst everything you can see is crisp and holding together. It’s doing ‘The Swan’ which is a shame when A) fried chicken is something I wish to be buried with and B) this is one of Cochran’s signature dishes.
Arguably, what should’ve been the ‘snack’ is a tartlet packed to the gills with cod’s roe that eats like softened butter, wreathed with thin slices of radish and absolutely blanketed in a soot of dehydrated seaweed. It completely coats the mouth and teeth and reminds me of the powder coating machine from Design Technology in high school- the seaweed fusing to any surface that’s remotely warm. It’s a bit of a belt-loop-caught-on-the-doorhandle moment for a first course.
The first of three stand-out dishes is a finely sliced scallop that’s been cured and torched, served just below blood temperature. It’s beguiling in its presentation- these iridescent petals obfuscated with thatches of crisp curried shallots that lift the dish entirely, intermingled with an emulsion made from the often much-maligned roe, which is a pleasure to see as it is to consume. Dots of buttermilk and burnt scotch bonnet vinegar give those flits of acidity to what is a gentle giant of a dish- my Editor has already cleaned her plate, looking expectantly down at mine, with half still to go because I’m doing something out of character- savouring.
The Norfolk asparagus that’s been blanched then judiciously scorched on the grill is obviously one enticing thing, but a brown crab butter mousse? I don’t know how, short of a shellfish allergy, you’d not be totally seduced by this. It’s this something you want to have fed to you by spoon, even if the person is saying ‘here comes the choo-choo!’ - get that stuff in the station ASAP. There’s a grapefruit emulsion which hits all the bittersweet notes that abridge those from the asparagus and cut through the rib-slicking mousse but oversteps with the pieces of fresh grapefruit. It kills the dish for me, so I skirt around it, appreciating that its involvement has been left optional.
Cochran’s executed an ode to spring with that little something extra that has me enamoured by his approach to cooking and is the second notable dish. Aside from the slice of rosy lamb loin that’s crowned with a burnished render that’s mottled with a grill’s kiss, or the cube of pressed and surgically sliced shoulder, that is deeply caramelised along every axis and riddled with ellipses of chilli, or the wild garlic ketchup that Shrek-green in looks as it is on the tongue, is the smoked mussel chutney.
A well-documented and avid supporter of surf n’ turf as I am, this has me marvelling at the plate, as if witnessing a severely clever flanking on a chessboard. Ascerbity that dissipates into the jazz club lingerings of smoke, before picking out the sweetly tender pieces of mussel as everything dies down for the next solo. The chunk of onion that’s been subject to a hard sear on one side falls into its jammy petals with the push of a fork; that outright ration of pure sugar that binds everything in its fire-coaxed stickiness. The only thing missing is a sauce, which with all the negative space used in the plating, you're expecting to make a glossy appearance of sorts.
Speaking of which- toasted marshmallow. Has there ever been something more gladly committed to the flames? Outside the death penalties of yore, of course. A vortex of this, with what seems to by now be a signature scorch, clings to the bowl, surging with puréed rhubarb yet somehow reminiscent of fromage frais. A muddle of poached rhubarb slices sit in the centre alive with that blunt crunch, glistening in its liquor. The custard ice cream is that playful touch of reimaging that makes this a memorable finish with all its nostalgic recallings. My only complaint is that I want more of it, forever. It’s the third and final star of this show.
You’d think the proposition of modern fine dining in a boozer is right within Peckham’s charming remit, but what became clear was that for both 12:51 and The White Horse staff, this arrangement wasn't ideal. For the punter and staff alike, the issues are rooted in a dissonance of expectation- you have a modern fine-dining kitchen doing its best to operate to that standard and a regular pub thrust into performing like a gastropub by proxy. Some dishes are brought to us with the detailing of what we’re about to eat, which is the fine dining MO whereas others are just plonked down in front of us and that’s it- to which you wouldn’t necessarily bat an eye if it was standard pub fare. Some dishes are being sent out to the wrong tables and there seems to be someone new starting tonight, so in a way, everyone involved is in some sort of deep-end, relative to their experience. But what was abundantly clear is that everyone was navigating the situation the best they can.
Despite the relatively trivial lamentations, this meal has just spurred me on to booking a table of 12:51- so I can experience Jame’s vision, unadulterated and true. I hold no grudges because nobody’s at fault; it’s just one of those things. However, should Mr. Cochran collaborate with anyone in the future, please, let it be Morley’s.