Review: Rochelle Canteen at the ICA, St James

Middlewhite chop and aioli

Middlewhite chop and aioli

Food has come a long way in the UK in 20 years. I can remember a time when any sort of visitor attraction – be it a zoo, a gallery, a museum or a country house – could be absolutely guaranteed to have a truly miserable canteen where, because you’re a captive audience, you could expect to pay over the odds for sandwiches in packets that conspired to be snot soggy and cardboard dry at the same time, with the filling shuffled to the front edge with deliberate cynicism to hide how little actual industrial cheddar and slimy lettuce was really inside. Or for some hideous hot special dolloped out like school dinners and needing a fistful of tiny condiment packets to give it some flavour. The hot chocolate always tasted like scorched milk peed into by a rat who might have once eaten a bit of kitkat.

Present day, and you can actually get a decent bite to eat in a lot of attractions. I had a lovely slice of lamb and mint pie at the country house somewhere Midlands-ish recently. And some places have even attracted rave-worthy chefs to their canteen. For example, the Rochelle Canteen at the ICA just off the end of Regent’s Park. To be fair, zoos do tend to still charge way over the odds for bloody criminal food; flaccid chips and hotdogs that probably need a biohazard warning. Sadly I suspect it’s because only parents with tiny kids (and us) go to zoos.

Pie

Pie

We tucked away two courses at the Rochelle Canteen before a show. The menu is short, but everything is appealing. Their style is pared down, take-as-you-find, the kind of dishes that a competent country yeoman could chuck together in his Aga kitchen from good stuff kept in the walk-in larder. Just probably better than most country yeomen would manage.

Our starters are things on toast. Maureen’s is a proudly flavourful chicken liver pate, spread thick, with cornichons. Mind is cold slices of meltingly good rump, cheerfully pink, and covering the slice of toasted sourdough two layers thick. Also covering a thick spread of punchy horseradish cream!

For main, I tuck into a well-grilled middlewhite chop. It goes very well with the friendly dollop of aioli and a very good salad of thinly sliced kohlrabi, fennel and radish. The dressing is zingy and does eventually get a bit much. Maureen’s main is a pie. To be more prosaic, it’s a gratin dish sloppily draped with a thick blanket of naughtily scrumptious short pastry and hiding a splendidly rich and satisfying filling of slow-cooked beef shin with pickled walnut. Scooping out a mouthful while the steam rises out of the pastry it was very hard not to make like the Bisto kid and “Ahhhhhhh!” out loud.

Three courses is going to be £32-ish here, and the wines by the glass aren’t at all budget. To me that’s perhaps the only teensy reservation: the quality of the cooking is excellent, but the pared-back canteen pate-on-toast feel of the place doesn’t really stack up with the price point for me. Might be a failure of imagination on my part. And after all, that pie really was sexy.

Rump cap on toast

Rump cap on toast

Review: Bar Douro, Southwark

Bar Douro

Bar Douro

This is the first time I’ve lived in London. I mean, I lived for 7 years in Sunbury-on-Thames and 3 years in Richmond and I called myself a Londoner… but hopping on the train once a week to do something around the West End or Kensington really doesn’t count, and my work was always in suburbia too. So, explorer that I am, I’ve been taking every opportunity to poke around as many areas as possible. Samuel Johnson springs to mind: “A man who is tired of London is tired of life.” Highgate is bucolic. Mayfair is Regency Islam. Crystal Palace has amazing views. Peckham high street feels like Africa. Blackheath is a village.

Some of the best surprises are getting around areas that you thought you knew. How many times have I been in-and-out of Waterloo station without knowing about Lower Marsh and The Cut? And how many times have I walked from London Bridge to Tate Modern without realising that “Bankside” actually extends a good way in from the river? Flat Iron Square is a food court tucked away in

Salt cod hash

Salt cod hash

that area, and in there is Bar Douro; a Portuguese tapas bar decorated all over with cheerfully Atlantic blue-and-white tiles.

We slurped on a wine flight of 3 different Alvarinho vinho verde and they were both diverse and excellent. Write this down: Portuguese Alvarinho is going to be big next year. Or at least, it deserves to be. Onto food…

Smoked sausage croquetas were excellent bites of warmly earthy meat and smooth potato. Grilled chicory with roast almond butter was a truly excellent veggie tapas; the bitter and smoky notes of the blackened chicory rounded out by the sweetly nutty almond and pepped up by orange juice.

Cake

Cake

Salt cod hash was less successful. Nice looking pile of crispy fried potato tangled up with bits of salt cod, egg, olives, onion and other stuff. But the reality of eating it was that the potato became rather oily once it had been on the table for a minute or two, and the salt cod scattered in there didn’t give enough bang for its buck.

Much, much, MUCH happier with the presa Iberica. This was a truly beautiful piece of pink and yielding pork, with nicely browned and salty edges. And the simple tomato-ey/chorizo-ey broth with the fat and placid broad beans was absolutely perfect as an accompaniment. This is how to showcase traditional cooking.

Their pastel de nata was unsurprisingly excellent, so was the richly wobbly slice of almond cake. You’ll probably need £28 for dinner before drinks, and I reckon that good value. I have no idea when and why I’ll find myself back in this corner of London, but explorer though I am, I’m going to be very tempted to visit Bar Douro every time.

Presa Iberica

Presa Iberica

Review: Morito, Clerkenwell

Oniony tortilla

Oniony tortilla

Small plates aren’t going anywhere. They are the new normal. And to be honest, while I have the occasional grouse at the silliness of some menus, that’s basically fine by me. You want first world problems, try stopping for a light lunch in France anywhere outside of a city. Sandwich? Non. Tapas? Non. Burger? Non. Bag of chips? Non. Full three course sit-down meal? Mais oui! Every bloody village and town in rural France has two or maybe three restaurants where, between the hours of 12 and 2 exactly (exactly!) you can get a three course lunch. Or starve.

Anyway, Morito in Exmouth Market is the lil’ brother of Moro. So it’s a Mediterranean tapas bar with inspirations from Spain through Greece. Small, busy and buzzy, the staff are wonderful and look after the coming and going tables effortlessly well.

We tried their onion tortilla. So this is an old-school firm tortilla, very well made and given a really nice spin with the slightly burnt onion flavour through it. That was probably my favourite.

The salt cod croquetas were okay, but missing some richness somewhere to bring the salt cod alive. Good aioli.

Crispy aubergine

Crispy aubergine

Crispy aubergine with whipped feta and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses was nice, the aubergine sticks having a very fine coating of semolina to give them just a little crispiness along with the silk inside. Good snacking.

Grilled mediterranean veg was really a chickpea dish, but cooked a nice melange of spices from further along the Mediterranean I thought it was rather delish.

Oyster mushroom bocadillo was a bit meh, the sturdy bun rather overwhelming the subtle chunks of mushroom and the little bit of crispy jamon with it.

Loved pud though. Rich pot of chocolate mousse topped with roasted almonds, sea salt crystals and a very punchy olive oil that tasted like grass on a Greek hillside. The darkly sweet mousse and the sharp grassy oil danced together perfectly. I always want my chocolate mousse with olive oil now. There was also a bowl of ice cream made with fat raisins and a dribble of sherry, simply lovely.

Morito reminds me of good tapas when it first arrived in the UK. Probably £24 each for food and a reasonably priced bunch of good wines. It’s well worth knowing for a good bite to eat, although to be honest it is rather outclassed by Jose, Barrafina, et al.

Mousse n olive oil

Mousse n olive oil

Review: Rovi, Fitzrovia

Rovi

Rovi

Beef and offal kofta is a lovely meaty sausage with that slight iron-y tang from whatever bits and bobs have gone into it. Beautifully grilled. On the menu it’s described as “beef and offal kofta, smashed cucumber” which is a hilarious piece of the menu writer’s art. You can just imagine the chef vigorously taking a meat tenderised to a long green cucumber. But no, alas, it’s just diced cucumber stirred up with a blob of yogurt and ground spices. We’re at Rovi, Ottolenghi’s new place in Fitzrovia.

Maureen’s snack is more lavish and equally delicious; lobster crumpet coated in sesame seeds with a really tangy Asian-flavoured kumquat and chilli dipping liquor. Very imaginative, and that’s the sense I get at Rovi: that they’re determined to play and experiment, refusing to do straight-up eastern Mediterranean cooking without changing it up a gear.

Tempura herbs

Tempura herbs

Sometimes this works out very inspiring. Tempura stems and leaves are just spot on; lightly battered forage sprinkled with enough pepper and salt to make the herbal flavours of the leaves sing out, and will a dipping liquor that had a highly fragrant flavour of watermelon.

The hogget ribs I cannot quite love. The wonderful flavour of mature hogget is packed in strongly, but the ribs have been roasted down to such a black intensity that it’s kinda hard work getting through them, and the pomegranate molasses don’t provide enough moisture to make up the balance. Pity. Grilled cucumber with an earthy/fragrant peanut sambal is much better, as is the celeriac shwarma with a fermented chilli and tomato sauce. The celeriac pieces still have some bite, the fermented tomato sauce is absolutely brilliant.

I think £38 each would be right for food, before drinks. On the one hand, I applaud the brave combinations and the imagination here. On the other hand, the results aren’t as balanced, precise and memorable as I’d hope at that price. I’m not expecting Rovi to be a regular destination.

Celeriac schwarma

Celeriac schwarma

Review: Oliviera, Richmond

Oliviera

Oliviera

They didn’t help their cause at Oliviera by having some fairly useless front of house on our visit. Not only did we have to resort to wild arm-waving after 20 minutes of waiting to order (despite the place being half-empty) but she also had no idea how to deal with an actual complaint. Maureen’s main course came out fairly tepid, which we told her when she stopped by to ask breezily “is everything okay?” We used the classic British: “Well, actually Maureen’s main course isn’t really hot, scarcely warm really.” She responded with a bemused “oh… I’ll let chef know” and wandered off. We didn’t see her again until it was time to clear the plates and ask whether we wanted desserts!

Anyway, we’re here for the food! Poor service can just be random bad luck. In fact, generally if I mention it at all I’m really pointing out that my mood wasn’t as receptive as it might have been, and with the best will in the world my overall impression of the meal might be a bit dented!

Agnolotti

Agnolotti

Oliviera is vegetarian, except for some rennet on their parmesan, but they wear the label lightly and set out just to serve delicious food. I start with ricotta and truffle agnolotti. This is good pasta, generous in size and nicely al dente. It’s a good ricotta and the truffle oil good quality. Maureen has a starter of mushroom risotto, again nicely cooked though rather gentle on flavour. Over the table my brother tried their “faux gras” – a vegetarian take on foie gras that he pronounced good, and a complete mystery as to what’s in it!

If you guessed at the outset that jackfruit would feature in our meal, you guessed right. Maureen’s jackfruit came in a spicy mango sauce with three kinds of rice. As noted, it was tepid, and perhaps that’s why the sweetness of the sauce seemed just a bit cloying after a while. I’m also really unclear why they called it “spicy”. I make spicier porridge.

Jackfruit n mango

Jackfruit n mango

My main was trumpet royale steak. Hm. See, here they hit one of my pet peeves. That vegetarian insistence on hopeful skeumorphisms. Slices of mushroom are not steaks. Even if you grill them. Steaks are steaks. In the event I had four slender slices of a sturdy mushroom that wouldn’t have been much more than 100g, so not even remotely the right shape or size for a steak. The bulk of my meal was actually cassava chips, and to be fair these were jolly good chips. They went very well with the 17-root(?) peppercorn sauce that engulfed the dinky mushroom slices. Good sauce too.

We didn’t stop for puds. But look, three courses will set you back £26-ish without drinks, and that’s pretty fair value for the quality of cooking. Not every dish was knock-out but there’s good flavour and good cooking here and I’d actually be quite happy if this was my neighbourhood restaurant.

Mushroom "steak"

Mushroom “steak”