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Neil Rankin, former Pitt Cue Co chef, takes over John Salt from Ben Spalding

neil rankin @ paul winch-furness06/01/13 Updated with Neil Rankin's start date and menu details.

Christmas may be almost upon us with folk leaving London in droves - but that didn't stop a humdinger of a restaurant story from breaking this weekend. Yesterday an out of the blue statement from Ben Spalding revealed that he and John Salt had parted company.

For those of you wondering 'who?' and 'what?' - let us fill you in. Spalding was the former head chef at Roganic who parted from them to set out on his own. He turned up at Broadway Market where his ground-breaking stall Stripped Back gained him a lot of fans, ourselves included.

So when we heard that he was to set up a long-term residency at John Salt in Islington we knew it would be a biggish deal. And certainly Spalding's food - whether you loved it or were bemused by it - had people talking. Just a few weeks ago we declared his chicken on a brick, Dish of the Year in our 2012 Awards.

Much like Dabbous, seats at Spalding's upstairs restaurant at John Salt were increasingly hard to find - we heard stories of it being sold out past Easter 2013. So it's pretty fair to lots of people were rather suprised to hear he was leaving. A statement released by the pub said: "together we've made the joint decision to finish on a high and to follow the different directions we both wish to pursue."

That was followed later on by a statement from Ben. “When teams part ways you hear a lot said about ‘different directions. That is the case with John Salt and I. They wish to present a different food offering. I wish them well, but their plans are not my plans. So the next time you eat food in a restaurant with Ben Spalding as its chef, I’d like it be in a restaurant owned and run by Ben Spalding.” Spalding later tweeted to say that he's currently looking at sites and we can expect to hear more soon.

All this might sound like a body blow for John Salt, who until this weekend were the talk of the town, were it not for the fact that they've picked someone rather interesting to take over from Spalding. Neil Rankin (who tweets as @frontlinechef) was Head Chef at BBQ wonderland Pitt Cue Co. We caught up with Neil to find out more.

When did you make the decision to take over at the John Salt and when will you be starting?

Originally I was in discussion to work with 580 at their pub the Owl and Pussycat in Shoreditch. This John Salt thing is a very recent change of plan so we're talking days not weeks. I'll be in the kitchen from early new year, but the plan is to launch properly at the end of January. There are  further plans with the Owl later in the year. I'll know more after new year though as I've barely had time to put a concrete menu together.

There are some great new food destinations in Islington cropping up, and it's a great place to do what I want right now.

What kind of food can we expect from you - will you also be taking over the bar menu downstairs?

I'll be taking over the menu for the whole venue. John Salt is a local bar and that needs to start being reflected in the offer. There will be some de-formalising but thats not to say were dumbing things down. The venue as a whole has great potential, and what I'm planning will work better across both floors.

We're working with the best producers and suppliers in Cornwall and London and the product will be stunning. Our supply network, sourcing and seasonality should do the talking, that's what's ground breaking about what were doing. We're taking it as far as having direct contact with the day boats and markets and we'll be tweeting the menu sometimes from the harbour on the same day. Also we have the best grower in the country from Keveral Farm providing some stunning veg and Philip Warrens and Sons providing the meat.

Expect lots of great seafood and meat, smoke and coal and a little bit of filth thrown in for good measure. This is a 7 days a week project, and for the long term. Also expect a serious roast.

(Updated 6/1/13) And what can you tell us about the menu?

Almost 90% of the menu has had some degree of smoke or fire added to to it. Even the cold dishes, the salads and a couple of the desserts. It's my intention to use charcoal and smoke almost like a seasoning. Sometimes its very subtle but you'd notice it if it wasn't there.

A few examples from the menu are:

  • Potted dishes inclusing pork jowl, smoked brisket and shrimp all with sourdough
  • Salami cure crackling
  • Starters include - raw bass with apple and bergamot; raw beef, pear, sesame, oyster; oysters, lardo, bacon dashi; scallops with peanut and shrimp; crab and fennel on pork skin; scallops, popcorn, bay ice and frozen, cured and smoked loin; burnt leeks, shiitake, parmesan and truffle vinaigrette.
  • Mains include Half/whole coal baked crab with bisque butter, green chilli poussin and a whole megrim sole in bone sauce with capers. There will also be rare breed beef, all with bone marrow butter, including skirt steak, sirloin and a 1k rib eye for two.
  • Sides include frites with pulled pork, kimchi and cheese, chicken skin hash, cheese and brisket on dripping toast as well as pickles and salad.
  • And finally, for dessert there will be brown butter ice cream, salted caramel and peanut sundae; old fashioned trifle with clementines and bacon panna cotta.

All existing reservations will have 50% off their bill because of the change - call John Salt on 0207 704 8955 for more details.

Neil Rankin starts at John Salt on January 16, with food available in both the upstairs restaurant (booked up till end March) and also in the main bar downstairs (available for walk-ins).

Neil Rankin photo by Paul Winch-Furness.

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