Back to the future: nostalgic classics at Cora Pearl

by Tom Shingler10 January 2019

It might have made headlines for its chips, but there’s much more to the menu at Cora Pearl – especially if you have fond memories of devilled eggs, cheese toasties and trifle. Tom Shingler talks to chef-director George Barson to see how this focus on nostalgic dishes came about.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Hosting a dinner party in Britain during the ‘70s and ‘80s was, as I’m sure you know, a very different affair than it is today. Vol-au-vents, prawn cocktails, chicken Kievs, arctic rolls – these are the dishes that encompassed the height of sophistication at the dining table. But these once esteemed recipes are now rarely seen and regarded as incredibly passé, as cooks turn to more exotic cuisines and lighter or fresher recipes instead.

It’s a shame, really. After all, these dishes were popular for a reason: they tasted damn good, especially when prepared with quality ingredients, care and attention. That’s something chef George Barson knows all too well, which is why he’s reinvigorating the dinner party dishes of yesteryear at his restaurant Cora Pearl, in Covent Garden.

George worked at the likes of Viajante, Dinner by Heston and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen before joining Kitty Fisher’s, which had already gained a cult following thanks to its incredible menu based around a wood-fired grill. In June 2018 he helped to open Cora Pearl – Kitty Fisher’s sister restaurant, which was an instant hit thanks in part to critics raving about its chips. But there are plenty of amazing dishes to choose from on the rest of the menu, particularly if you’re after indulgent, comforting, nostalgia-laced eating.

Chef-director George Barson works at Cora Pearl and its sister restaurant Kitty Fisher's
The menu at Cora Pearl is focused on comfort food, with many dishes breathing new life into the classics of yesteryear

‘We never wanted Cora Pearl to just be a rollout of Kitty Fisher’s, so we’ve always made sure they are very separate entities,’ says George. ‘At Kitty Fisher’s it’s all about the wood-fired grill which dominates the kitchen and we follow a more classic format on the menu, whereas Cora Pearl is more focused on complex comfort food – not to mention the kitchen is twice the size, which allows us to do lots of things we couldn’t do before. We’re also a bit more tongue-in-cheek with the dishes.’

This tongue-in-cheek approach has inadvertently given Cora Pearl its identity. Rather than following contemporary trends, George and his team are spearheading a revival in some of the classic dishes of yesteryear. You can order a devilled egg to start, followed by Cora’s signature take on favourites like prawn cocktail, Caesar salad and trifle. There are unashamedly classical French dishes like the veal fillet with celeriac and Bordelaise sauce (complete with little cubes of wobbly bone marrow), and a fish stew with croutons. These are crowd-pleasing dishes that everyone remembers fondly from dinner parties of old, but for whatever reason fell out of fashion and became a rare find when eating out.

‘Those sort of fun nostalgic dishes are great to cook and while they initially just started off as ideas they seem to be what our customers have really latched onto, which has helped the restaurant stand out,’ says George. ‘I’m not sure I like the word ‘retro’ to describe them, but they’re going in that sort of direction. Classic dishes like ham, egg and chips or gammon and pineapple are great, but they’ve been ruined over the years by pubs serving up poor examples of them.’

Dishes tend to be crowd-pleasing, such as this cured salmon with sour cream starter
Cora Pearl also offers a hearty Sunday lunch with all the trimmings

Perhaps the best example of how Cora Pearl is breathing new life into old-school dishes is its ham and cheese toastie. It’s a simple snack that almost everyone has enjoyed at some point in their lives, so it needs to be elevated into something really special in a restaurant setting. ‘The toastie is probably the most complicated dish on the menu in terms of time and processes,’ explains George. ‘We have to cook ham hock and pig cheeks in stock, pick them down, mix other ingredients in and let it set overnight before portioning it up. Then we have to make a cheese ganache and the walnut pickle gel that goes on the side. If you’re serving a toastie you’ve really got to go for it – we’re dealing with nostalgia here, so it has to wow people whilst staying true to what it is.’

Taking the flavours of childhood and giving them an epicurean spin is a trick chefs have been doing for years (just look at Heston Blumenthal’s menu at The Fat Duck, which is entirely themed around a youthful trip to the seaside), but at Cora Pearl they weave this nostalgia into classical French techniques with a 1980s dinner party vibe. ‘I just get inspired by looking through old cookbooks and having a bit of fun,’ says George. ‘We’ve just started doing a take on Neapolitan ice cream, where it comes in the slice with three flavours, and we’re thinking about making something based on a mint choc chip Viennetta. Everyone has great memories of dishes like those, so if we can remind people of them but at the same time serve something that’s made with proper ingredients and is delicious, then that’s fantastic.’

As well as nostalgic dishes, George and his team focus on classical French cooking
The trifle is a firm favourite on the menu, with the fruit element changing depending on the season

Cora Pearl’s move towards classical French cooking is also an unusual one for a new restaurant – but George believes it’s time for a revival. ‘I always think the classic style of French cooking has formed the backbone of all the great restaurants in the UK, but what fell out of favour was the stiff service and formality that came with it. We’re trying to bring back that indulgent sort of food but in a more modern way. I love all the Nordic kind of stuff that’s popular at the moment but it’s not what we wanted for Cora Pearl. We needed it to fit the space – slightly opulent, a bit over the top, even a bit old fashioned I guess. When you go out to eat it’s a treat, particularly in theatre land where the restaurant is based. It’s got a slight magic to it.’

In the seven months since Cora Pearl opened, it’s gained a cult following many restaurants would kill for. There’s an undeniable elegance to everything it does, from the plush interiors to the luxurious cocktail list, and the menu manages to combine nostalgia, comfort, flavour and playfulness all at once. Whether you’re in the area to see a show and just want a drink and a toastie beforehand or are after a blow-out meal to remember, it should be high up on your list. After all, who doesn’t like a devilled egg?

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