It’s a sign of the times that I can not only find a restaurant’s menu on social media, but also request a particular dessert via an Instagram comment. Yet, in the case of Box-E, my prior knowledge does nothing to detract from the magic of the meal. The harbourside setting alone is enchanting: perched high up in a set of shipping containers, where light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows. It will be fabulous on a summer evening, but it is still very special on a grey, February afternoon.
This is the passion project of Tess and Elliott Lidstone, a chef with superlative credentials, who spent their life savings on a stove named Sandra and launched headfirst into their own venture. It’s difficult to convey how tiny their restaurant is, with just 14 seats squeezed around the open kitchen and 4 stools at the counter. We are practically at the stove with Elliott, mesmerised by his rhythmic movements back and forth to the pass.
Tess is away on the day of our visit, but we’re greeted very warmly by our server, who offers boundless enthusiasm about the wine list and the food. He brings us freshly baked bread - a white tin loaf, still warm, which makes a refreshing change to the now ubiquitous sourdough. Its fluffy crumb and gentle flavour works well not to fight with, but rather provide a foundation for, the salty, umami seaweed butter.
After being encouraged to take several more slices of bread, we watch Elliott plate our food. Our meal begins with purple-sprouting broccoli dusted in truffles tasting of musk and wood, then brightened by peppery radishes and the sharp, apple flavour from Japanese shungiku leaves. It reminds me that, even in the depths of winter, vegetables can be sprightly and vibrant.
Then there is pollock, whose golden skin can barely hold quivering flakes of plump, pearly fish. It rests on a cradle of celeriac puree and fat borlotti beans cooked until just collapsing, but still with substance from flecks of crunchy celery and spring onion. Parsley oil adds grassy freshness; butter-bathed chard leaves bring richness. It’s a lesson in how to elevate simple ingredients - an inexpensive fish, beans, root vegetables - into a special, unctuous dish.
For my partner, a perfect pink fillet of lamb, its fattiness foiled by the slight bitterness and bite of quinoa and the blazing heat of harissa. A dab of soothing cauliflower puree, mirrored by shavings of raw cauliflower, is all that is needed to make this a well-rounded plate of food. The flavours in this dish, and throughout the meal, are earthy and subtle, with a touch of sharpness, sweetness or spice added here and there.
As the waiter presents the dessert menu, he offers a wise smile that suggests he already knows what we will order. Indeed, in the short time it has been open, Box-E has become synonymous with one particular pudding: its superlative pannacotta. “Even when Elliott cooks the finest cut of beef or a beautiful piece of fish, people are looking ahead to dessert,” the waiter tells us. “If we don’t have any pannacotta on that day, they ask us if we’ve got any in the back!”
And it is every bit as good as its reputation would suggest. Its smooth, untroubled surface trembles slightly as the plate is set down, the accompanying blood orange like a blush on its milk white cheek. The clean, delicate taste of dairy and real vanilla is woken up by the acidic citrus fruit and the crunch of pomegranate. I’m not sure if they’ll ever be able to take this pudding off the menu.
It’s an ambrosial end to a deftly executed meal. I challenge anybody not to be wowed by the accomplished cooking and amiable, relaxed service. Elliott and Tess claim to have thrown caution to the wind with their venture, but I have a hunch that they’re well on their way to being swept up in a tornado of nationally-acclaimed success.