Barge East

Hackney Wick

‘Charming and luxurious’

I love food with a side of history – pastries in front of the Parthenon, canapés in the catacombs.

Closer to home, a short stroll away from Hackney Wick’s industrial magnificence, you have a floating restaurant whose timber bones were fused in the Edwardian period.

Thankfully after quite the facelift, De Hoop, the boat now home to Barge East, was brought over from the Netherlands by childhood friends Tommo, Ryan and Blandy. I can’t even get my pals to a day festival in Brockwell Park.

Despite having too flat a bottom (a common complaint), and in the middle of the raging Beast from the East storm of 2018, they made it – with the help of one Captain Haddock (I kid you not).

Having got to these misted isles, they realised that it wouldn’t fit under the low bridges of the River Lea, so deconstruction, ballasting and breakage of ballast was required to dip and duck it into place.

Since then, the trio has built a swish upper deck and colonised the land around it to create one of the city’s biggest outdoor spaces, where local produce is grown for the restaurant (enter food critic swoon here).

Like the vikings of old, this Dutch barge feels like the camp of a hungry and sustainably focused horde, beer-ing and banqueting in the sunshine before packing up to raid another field of native rhubarb.

But enough of the past, the present is BRIGHT! A venue like this glows in good weather, and so on a sweating Sunday my friend and I pelt it down the canal, painfully late thanks to a dawdling overground train.

Turning a corner, the ship appears, surrounded by its sprawling Gethsemane of good times, canopy still in the breezeless day.

We settle in for a bursting and at times baffling Sunday lunch.

The full spread. Photograph: Barge East

Do I like being seated at a giant hammered propeller-table in a surprisingly cool room, reflections a-dappling? Do I enjoy a view of the downward spike of the canal, the City’s buildings dagger-like against the watery foreground? I do indeedy – however slow the service in our little topside hideaway may be.

An Aperol spritz is almost mandatory, but why not push the boat out (HAR HAR) and try the bespoke options?

There’s the Barge-arita, a well-balanced, sweet rhubarb riff on a Margarita, or the Captain Craig (the chef), a glass of tart, mezcal flamyness with enough smoke to set off a fire alarm.

Not forgetting the Fool’s Bloom, with strawberry and rose rum (yum), or Garden Bench, with homemade limoncello created by using the discarded rinds, piths and skins.

Other cocktail names like Tidal Sour and Paper Boat keep us on deck and on theme, and I do love the commitment to the bit.

Now that we’re drunk – I joke, but give it time – we turn our attention to the menu, and this is very much a splash-out roast. It is not your £9, down-the-local with microwaved veg, no no.

The three-course set menu is £39, but has a lot to brag about in some places.

It’s just the size and preciously stacked height that you want.

Red bruntona pork belly – salted, sensational and from up the road in Suffolk – is balanced next to a cradled hawk’s nest of Yorkshire pudding, gazed at enviously by my Preston-gal guest. The North may not forget, but sometimes it approves.

Duck fat potatoes, on point and crunchy, nectar-hinted carrots and a clump of brassed red mulch (cabbage) are all built to munch and mix, then douse in the ample gravy and burnt apple sauce.

Hack and hew, this is the main event, and also the warm-up act.

There is beef rump or lamb leg, which have similar generosity and ability with an oven: crispy and creative.

A shallot tart as the vegan option feels a little mournful in comparison (although we didn’t try it), but I would imagine watching your friends dismantle a tower of food, you might feel deflated with an (I’m sure tasty) but decidedly two-dimensional main course.

The starters, although inviting flavour-wise, are in extreme contrast to the overburdened roasts.

The beef tartare. Photograph: courtesy Barge East

Beef tartare is served in the hollowed-out marrow line of a bone, which itself is nestled on a bundle of hay. The open bone is about the width of a teaspoon, and two lunges of the aforementioned implement is all you’re going to get, which feels a tad measly in comparison to the mound of beef offered in any French spot worth its garlic.

It’s a similar situation with the asparagus, which, rather than spears resting like downed medieval weapons and dribbled in something sinfully creamy, are thrown rather haphazardly into a simple green salad. Apparently this contains dandelion, but we couldn’t find it. The dish sadly obscures the butteriness that the vegetable is so loved for.

Mussel escabeche is an acidic ceviche/gazpacho hybrid with the sweetness of carrot and a sharp stab of vinegar. Tiny pebbles of seafood beg to be skewered by the provided cocktail sticks. So far, so petite and piquant, but it’s served with disintegrated crackers that we assume are intended to act as scoops. Instead, we have to resort to pouring the shrapnel into the bowl and spooning it out, and it felt like something didn’t quite go right in the plating department.

Other morsels swim off the plate and down the gullet.

Cured Loch Duart salmon, sat in a plod of beetroot gel with squid ink shards, is an appropriate freshwater legend. The side of cauliflower cheese dwarfs the starters, baptised in all that drizzles and goops. Strands drizzle down the chin, and to hell with decorum.

An apple tart is a paper-thin, flirty thing that crunches under tooth, and the ganache is 75 per cent of chocolate aristocracy but over in one not incredibly wide bite.

Rice puddings and Eccles cake, along with a temptingly cooling affogato, are also on offer.

The service is charming and luxurious, although should you really have anything planned on this blessed day of rest?

Saying that, it was the Hackney Half when we visited. I can tell you, nothing, and I mean nothing, felt better than being perched on the top deck in all our finery, chuckling into our cocktails at the healthy and charitable sweating over their celebratory pints.

Barge East on a summery day, when all you have to achieve is a bloody good lunch – to me, that’s the only medal I need.