Yes, it’s yet another Hackney café, but the Russet brings something all of its own to the mix. The site canteen for Hackney Downs Studios, it describes itself as a ‘café and creative venue’, hosting exhibitions, acoustic sessions and distinctly one-off events – we saw what looked like a tent for animated Punch and Judy going up when we visited.
A holistic, community philosophy informs everything it does, from the name – one of the varieties of apple tree planted in nearby Hackney Downs’ new community orchard – to the ethical and local sourcing of ingredients. Coffee comes from Bow’s Union Hand Roasted, ale from London Fields Brewery, bread is pedalled over from E5 Bakery and cakes are made in the on-site kitchen.
It’s easy to pick this sort of localism policy apart, since we’re hardly in the Garden of England here. But an effort is clearly being made, such as with the Stoke Newington medlar chutney served with the cheese sarnies.
The menu – short, simple and hand-written on the glass doors of a cupboard behind the counter – offers breakfast and brunch options plus a couple of hot dishes and sandwiches. The kitchen is small, which was given as a slightly disingenuous explanation for a half-hour wait.
The cooking was a bit hit and miss. Scallops and bacon were ably fried, but the accompanying toast was too thin and dry; cauliflower cheese was tasty but the sausages alongside were borderline undercooked. We were appeased by a sensational homemade chocolate and salt caramel tart and a reasonable bill of £21, which included apple juice and two coffees. On Sunday, a two-and-a-half-course roast lunch is served all day, and on Saturday evenings, the round-table folk and roots ‘Cider Sessions’ are open to all.
Visually, Russet is a guilelessly charming ensemble of art, found objects and mismatched furniture tumbled into the interlocking rooms of a former print warehouse. With a whiff of Berlin’s community art cafés about it, it puts the pleasure principle above the profit motive and is already cherished by a laid-back local crowd. But the kitchen needs to pay as much attention to the cooking as it does to its ethical stance.