Lucky & Joy, London: ‘Can’t help but make you smile’ – restaurant review

Head to Hackney for a cheerful vibe and top Chinese cooking

‘Candy-coloured walls and open kitchen’: Lucky & Joy.
‘Candy-coloured walls and open kitchen’: Lucky & Joy. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
‘Candy-coloured walls and open kitchen’: Lucky & Joy. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Jay Rayner

Last modified on Tue 22 Dec 2020 06.23 EST

Lucky & Joy, 95 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 (020 8617 8100). Snacks £3.50-£6.50, larger dishes £6-£14, dessert £5, wine from £24

A lunchtime in the first blush of the new normal and I am in a Hackney restaurant called Lucky & Joy. It feels like the right place to be. I know how lucky I am personally, and God knows we could all do with some joy. In Chinese, the two words are often used together to create a doubly auspicious impression. I appreciate the sentiment. But Lucky & Joy also represents innovation in the restaurant world that’s far from the shiny big-ticket launches that get the attention. It deserves a moment in the spotlight.

‘It’s so close to Christmas’: typhoon shelter brussels sprouts.
‘It’s so close to Christmas’: typhoon shelter brussel sprouts. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The project started with two friends becoming obsessed with the food at Silk Road, a simple Chinese caff in south London’s Camberwell, specialising in the slippery ribbon noodles and the soupy big-plate chicken dishes of China’s Xinjiang province. It’s easily done. I’ve gone through my own Silk Road phases, too. Ellen Parr is a chef with a bunch of places on her CV, including the Iberian restaurant Moro. Pete Kelly is a drinks expert. Silk Road was their shared gateway drug. Soon they were working their way around the laid-back Chinese cafés of New York, finding out what they liked. Eventually they headed to China itself, to gather recipes.

Lucky & Joy began as a pop-up with Parr writing a menu influenced by those travels: sprightly, boisterous food which told the story of good times they’d had together. There are many fabulous Chinese restaurants in Britain. This is not pretending to mimic one of those. It’s paying homage by serving up dishes, which cheerily slap you round the chops repeatedly, and then slap you again.

‘It draws attention to itself’: sea bass with chillies.
‘It draws attention to itself’: sea bass with chillies. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Last year they settled into this site with its candy-coloured walls and open kitchen. Necessarily they have been closed for most of it, but have now reopened with a menu that could look short if you’re comparing it to a standard Chinese offering. So don’t compare it. See it as a set of stories from the road, in edible form. It comes in the shape of a shiny pink slip from which you tick off your choices.

There are five snacks starting with pickled peanuts, wallowing in a bath of black vinegar. Move on to the Yunnan smacked cucumber, cut into sizeable chunks, then pelted with chopped garlic and finally invited to bathe in a sour dressing bobbing with chopped cherry tomatoes. We also have a plate of their sesame noodles, served at room temperature, which are the proverbial steel fist in the velvet glove. They are slippery with lots of toasty, nutty buttery tones before the chilli heat builds.

‘The deepest of muddy browns’: pork belly.
‘The deepest of muddy browns’: pork belly. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

As it’s so close to Christmas the bigger dishes include typhoon shelter brussels sprouts, which have been lightly battered then heaped under deep-fried minced garlic, dried and fresh chillies and fresh coriander, with just a pinch of sugar. It’s a Christmas dish for anyone wanting to scare their nervous granny, if they have one. (This is not meant as an insult to brave and adventurous grandmothers; only as an insult to the timid ones).

Ellen Parr was a non-meat eater for many years. Accordingly, the menu is vegetarian friendly. Try grandma’s potatoes, the spuds spun through with pickled mustard greens and ginger, or the Yunnan-style aubergine with silken tofu. There’s only one fish dish, but it draws attention to itself. A long fillet of seabass arrives looking like the flag of an emerging nation. One vertical half is spread with a green lawn of minced pickled chillies. The other is spread with an equal thickness of salted chillies. Somehow, the fish still holds its own.

As do chunky, long-roasted lamb ribs, heavily dusted with a mixture of ground cumin, chilli powder, salt and sugar, which I first met on BBQ lamb skewers at Silk Road. We also have the red braised pork belly, which is the deepest of muddy browns. The meat is soft and the sauce heavy with caramel and soy and the aromatics of the black star anise which litter the surface. They look like Christmas decorations, albeit only from a version of Christmas as directed by Tim Burton.

‘A perfect slice’: custard tart.
‘A perfect slice’: custard tart. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

There is just one dessert, a perfect slice of cinnamon-dusted custard tart with a dark, crumbly biscuit base. It’s a witty take on the Portuguese-style custard tarts that are so popular across much of China. It’s also a cheery and unselfconscious end to a cheery and unselfconscious meal. Lucky & Joy can’t help but make you smile. This last lockdown was only a month, but by God it was good to be seated back at a table enjoying the fruits of someone else’s good taste and knowledge.

In normal times, which these are not, someone often complains that the restaurant I’ve reviewed is not within walking distance of their home. That sound you can hear? My eyeballs grinding against my skull as I roll them. But the issue is undeniably more pronounced now, with restaurants in huge swathes of the country still closed and pubs trying to work out how big a scotch egg has to be before it qualifies as a substantial meal.

It means restaurant meal kits remain relevant. Two weeks ago, in the “news bites” which appear with the online version of this column, I mentioned Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in Reading. The response from locals was a round of applause. Almost all the deliveries I’ve had have been from high-profile players; this was an encouragement to try somewhere less so.

It turns out I was absolutely right to include Clay’s. Well done me. Starters, at around £7.50 include dark-browed and intense chicken livers fried with cumin, coriander, mint and dried mango power, fiery little beetroot potato tikki, and fillets of tilapia, first floured and fried, then tossed in a glorious mess of caramelised onions, tomatoes and fresh coriander. Star of the mains, all priced in the low-teens, is a sweet and soupy prawn curry, a zingy mess of pumpkin and butternut squash and, best of all, a keema biryani, the fluffy, aromatic rice mined with nuggets of ground and spiced lamb.

Here in London, I’m close to some cracking restaurants serving the diverse food of the Indian subcontinent. Even so, ordering a delivery from 40 miles away didn’t feel like a stupid idea. Which says an awful lot about both the punchy cooking at Clay’s, and the weird times through which we’re living.

Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, deliveries nationwide, clayskitchen.co.uk

News bites

Fat Macy’s is a social enterprise providing support and training to help young Londoners living in hostel accommodation to move into their own place. Before the pandemic they did this through work experience in the hospitality industry at events and supper clubs. Now they’ve moved to a ‘dine at home’ model. Their clients help chefs with food prep and pack the dishes, the likes of slow-cooked chicken with preserved lemons and cinnamon doughnuts. Meals costs from £18 a head and are delivered across much of the UK (fatmacys.org).

Many have asked for a more comprehensive listing of all the delivery options from restaurants at the moment. Let me point you at the London restaurant site Hot Dinners which has done a brilliant job throughout 2020 of tracking what’s going on. Obviously, some of it is London only but a lot of it, from the likes of Padella, Sambal Shiok and Berenjak, is nationwide (hot-dinners.com).

The Native Oyster and Shellfish Company is a new launch, offering the first Scottish Highland oysters for sale in a century for delivery across the UK. The company is a spin-off of the Glenmorangie Whisky distillery and is designed to use native oysters to biofilter whisky waste. They are delivered in what they say is the world’s first zero plastic, 100% recyclable cool box. The natives aren’t cheap but there is also a rock oyster option (scottishshellfishcompany.com).

• This article was amended on 22 December 2020. An earlier version said that “lucky” and “joy” are generally used together to mean “double happiness”; this was inaccurate, although the words do often feature together because of the auspicious symbolism of prosperity and happiness.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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