Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Canteen, Spitalfields Market

Looking for something to break the tedium of sandwich bar lunches in the City, today I wandered a little further down Commercial Road and stumbled across a row of interesting looking dining spots in Spitalfields Market. Choosing one completely at random - Canteen - I sat down in front of a refreshingly British looking menu populated with the likes of potted shrimps, gammon and potatoes, and Arbroath Smokie. The room was done up in the hideous Wagamama style of long bench seating, although unlike Wagamamas the staff weren't quite so keen to force you to sit cheek to jowl with as many other diners as possible, so I managed to keep a healthy distance from the Nathan Barley-esque advertising execs braying loudly over their Macbooks about their new pitch for JD Sports at the other end of the table.

Starter of Pea and Ham Soup was actually pretty good. There was plenty of it, and it did taste satisfyingly home made, although the accompanying bread was slightly stale, and it would have been nice to have some chunks of ham in the soup itself just to break up the texture a bit - but even so, not bad for £4.50.

I have written before about the curse of the foodie to always go for the most bizarre item on the menu, and so for my next course I chose Devilled Kidneys. I'd never had them before and they sounded like a nice traditional dish - very pre-war, offal, I tend to think. I am always open-minded about food - any dish would have to be pretty unusual if not actually dangerous to make me think twice about wolfing it down. But having been presented with a plate piled high with wobbling offal which smelt of urine, well, I must admit I was staring defeat in the face. You know when you go to the zoo in winter, and all the African animals have been keeping warm inside for weeks and the smell of camel urine and straw burns your nose as you enter the enclosure? That, on a plate, with toast.

If this is what they're supposed to taste like then I'm not surprised you don't see them on menus more often. And if they're not supposed to taste like this - and if anyone out there can enlighten me either way, please feel free - then someone should tell Canteen because, quite frankly, they were revolting.

Devilled Kidneys aside (which is where I left them), I am actually very much in favour of what Canteen is trying to do. Very reasonably priced, unapologetically British food, served informally and with charm. But to serve up a dish which is actually so bad it's inedible is pretty much a black mark against any place, no matter how good their intentions are. I can't recommend Canteen I'm afraid, but I'm optimistic about their future.


Canteen on Urbanspoon


Silverbrow said...

I'm in position to comment on what devilled kidneys taste like, but how, if at all, did the staff react to you leaving a plate-full of food? I like Canteen, always found it works well and a good concept. They're planning to roll them out and i'm fairly sure, they've already started doing so.

Chris said...

I did try one or two but made some excuse about being too full from the soup to have any more. I'm such a wimp - I really should have mentioned something but as I wasn't sure what they were supposed to taste like I didn't feel confident enough.

To be honest, I got the impression Canteen was just a British-food Wagamamas. I just hope I'm wrong.

Charlie said...

Personally, I quite like the urine-scented tang of kidneys, but there's no getting away from the fact that that is basically where urine is made. If you really over-cook them (as in steak and kidney pie), you can get rid of a lot of the taste, but where's the fun in that?

Devilled is a pretty vague Victorian term for "spiced up in an old fashioned English way", which basically means with English mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Personally, I think a bit of chilli sauce, sherry, and dijon mustard with sauteed shallots is the best way to devil, but I don't know how Canteen do theirs.

slonik said...

You should have had the macaroni cheese instead, which is delectable. And, given the title of your blog, surely it would have been excusable?

Chris said...

I went back to Canteen for lunch yesterday, and tried the macaroni cheese. It was nice alright, and cheap enough too. Thanks for the tip.

Alex said...

I cook devilled kidneys every year for Christmas day breakfast, and I love them. I also mistakenly ordered them once at Canteen (Baker Street, a place that I think is OK in general) and can tell you exactly what went wrong wrong with them. They failed to follow this set of rules

1. You need to cook all offal as fresh as possible, not old and defrosted.

2. It's OK to dislike the digestive tang of kidneys (much less noticeable in lambs kidneys I find, you wouldn't like pig's kidneys if you don't like lamb's). But you can help out by soaking them in milk for a couple of hours in advance.

3. You have to scrupulously snip out every shred of interior fat to stop the buggers toughening up. It's a hassle and restaurants often dodge it.

4. You may add bacon lardons and mushrooms to the kidneys.

5. You may not add cream. Just a lot of Lea & Perrins, to emulsify the flour/mustard powder/cayenne you rolled the kidneys in before you fried them in butter.

6. Black velvet to drink I think.

My family's first taste of this was hilarious. Like the orgy at the end of 'Perfume', a kind of confused, ecstatic awe.