What goes around, comes around. Remember the muesli and sandals brigade who implored us to eat organic veg and humanely-farmed meat? Critic Jay Rayner does and he considers some of these compassionate food production methods to be unsustainable tosh. However, that’s an argument for a different forum – like his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World.
To make your voice heard in a foodie Mecca like Brighton, you need a Concept. Some – like the wholly vegetarian offering – have been pretty much owned by Food for Friends and others. There are a few <ahem> offshoots of the meat-free menu, with some exclusively-vegan places for the die-hard self-deniers. And now the smoke is rising from the heat of a thousand eco-warriors rubbing their thighs with ecstasy at the opening of the city’s most sustainable restaurant.
Silo’s concept is a grand one in its ideology. Chef Douglas McMasters chooses “food sources that respect the natural order, allowing ingredients to be themselves without unnecessary processing”. This is not uniquely pioneering, particularly in Brighton, home of one of the originator of ‘ethical and sustainable’ food Terre a Terre. However, added to this worthy aspiration is the kicker – all this he is going to deliver with zero waste. That’s an issue that’s arguably a lot more relevant to 21st century urban living than many of the other faddy food trends, so perhaps McMasters has got something here if he can actually do it.
Matt and Cat heard the buzz about Silo from the chef at the zeitgeisty 64 Degrees. “If you’re interested in food, you must go to Silo,” he recommended. And so they did. As they know from their own reviews of Isle of Wight food, the advice of a native guide is often worth taking.
Slightly off the North Laine trail, Silo is easy to spot with its massive door confidently emblazoned with the text ‘No. 39’. It looks like a warehouse and most likely was one quite recently. Now it’s a space which sells a “pre-industrial food system”. If this sounds like something from the future it’s probably meant to. But it’s also set firmly in the past – a dim and distant and maybe somewhat idealised past when people collected fruits from hedgerows, and drank milk warm from the udder. So distant in fact that the language of Silo is sprinkled with terms like ‘ancient grains’ and ‘pre-industrial’; going beyond the artisanal approach towards the hunter-gatherer.
Silo’s interior was achingly trendy; not just punctuated with lo-fi touches like the ubiquitous jam-jars to quaff from, but it was almost like an art installation. The drinks menu, with bang-on-trend craft brews and the aforementioned hedgerow syrups, was chalked up on a vast blackboard. The chairs were constructed out of oriented-strand board to a frill-free design; ergonomically agreeable but deliberately not luxurious. The ducting was consciously unconcealed, exposed lightbulbs dangled from a tangle of cables and the metal-topped tables looked reclaimed. Not so much shabby chic – more austerity chic. The restaurant was packed. About half the patrons were knitwear-clad yummy mummies with three-wheeled pushchairs – the other half was divided between pensioners and young men with full beards and even the occasional tweed three-piece. Friends, in Brighton this is not even ironic.
The interior probably doesn’t need to be quite so hair-shirty; after all, a beaker is just as re-useable as a jam-jar, ceramic plates can’t be any less sustainable than a disc of reformed plastic and surely a simple cushion can’t conflict with pre-industrial sensibilities. However, all of this restrained lack of ornamentation was part of the gag and helped reinforce the message.
To save on paper the menu was projected on the wall. But surprisingly, when items were no longer available they were not deleted or stuck-through – which would have been the work of moments and a perfect use of this flexible medium. The dishes were given simple names: ‘Fish’, ‘Dairy’, ‘Plant’. The lack of embellishment even made its way to the descriptions of the dishes; just a list of ingredients – kind of #PretentiousNotPretentious.
Cat had “Plant”: heirloom tomatoes, black quinoa, lettuce and herb sauce. This simple dish was quite a riot of tastes. The tomatoes had been lightly cooked to bring out the sweet flavour, which was complemented by chunks of caramelised red onion. The little gem lettuce – usually one of the more pedestrian salad ingredients – was given a touch of sparkle by the herb dressing. Overall the dish was tasty and came with bonus worthiness points which, as any fule kno, cancel out the calories!
Chef Doug delivered Matt and Cat’s mains himself and keenly explained to Matt that his ‘Fish’ dish was made using red gurnard, which had been acquired from Catchbox, a local community-supported fishery. His impressively full explanation of the dish was an insight into what drives Silo. He assured M&C that the fishermen fish at night locally and, in the manner of all things humane, the fish choose to “swim into the nets”. The grilled fish was served with oyster emulsion, seaweed salsa and grilled cucumber – a delicious dish and a great mixture of textures. The red gurnard was seared on the outside, but wonderfully soft and moist on the inside; and the oyster emulsion was a perfect smooth counterpart to it. Silo was clearly more than just talk – the food was something to be reckoned with.
Cat’s rosehip and pear juice was thick enough to be a dessert, but Matt was unable to resist Silo’s bread pudding (which, interestingly didn’t appear on the easily-updateable e-menu). A small cylinder of dense pudding came alone on a recycled-plastic platter. It was £2. Yes, only two pounds for a dessert. And it was a good one.
Bread pudding £2
Jamjar drinks 2 @ £2 = £4
So could Silo succeed on the Isle of Wight? Of course it could – and if foraging ‘enfant terrible’ chef Oliver Stephens was still here he’d probably have done something like it himself by now. Upcycled pallet furniture and jam-jars have already arrived; locally-caught fish and foraged food have featured on menus here for a while. All of those sage old hippies that championed the cause of organic produce and humane treatment of animals must be pumping the air with scrawny clenched fists at this popular re-engagement with their decades-old philosophies. Now, finally, the masses are on board with ideas that at one time might have seemed subversive. And Silo shows that it’s possible to serve very good food without compromising those laudable aims – even adding a few new ones of its own.
And does all this worthiness come at a price? Yes it does. But, remarkably, even with this amount of culinary skill and attention to detail, it’s a budget one. Silo’s clientele was easily equal parts hipster and replacement-hipster, both enjoying an excellent value lunch. Matt and Cat were so stunned by paying less than twenty five quid for their lunch that they asked for a receipt. Which, in the interests of saving paper, was emailed to them.
Matt and Cat had come to Silo expecting a commendable effort that fell short of a realistically sustainable project. They left, after an excellent meal at takeaway prices, with the suspicion that they might have seen a glimpse of things to come.
Mostly Matt and Cat write about the Isle of Wight. But not always. In 2014 they took an autumn city break in Brighton where they got some great dining out tips from the locals, and this is one of several reviews they wrote there. It’s one of an occasional series of mainland reviews.