Thursday, 14 November 2019

Allegra, Stratford

You've got to admire a restaurant with ambition, and Allegra is most certainly to be admired. It's in an ambitious (ie. risky) part of town, the somewhat untested waters (restaurant-wise at least) of Stratford, and for most people the first part of their evening will involve a half-mile walk through the grim Westfield Shopping Centre, hardly the kind of atmosphere to get you in the mood for fine dining. It's in an ambitious building, as well - the Stratford hotel, a vast new monolith towering over the old Olympic Park which boasts 145 rooms, a sky terrace and at least 4 bars and restaurants that I could see on my journey from the front door up to the 7th floor. And thanks to head chef Patrick Powell, ex- of Chiltern Firehouse, the food is as ambitious as anywhere in town serving modern, seasonal British food, with interesting seafood and premium meats in a number of eye-catching treatments. It's a menu that reads incredibly well, and sometimes that's half the battle.

Similarly ambitious is the drinks side of things, with an exquisitely tasteful (note: ambitious does not always equal tasteful) cocktail list, and a climate-controlled wine cellar (funny calling a room on the 7th floor of a brand new building a 'cellar' but I can't think of a better word) that they'll very proudly show you around. Incidentally, pictured above is a "Preserved in Time", involving rum, sherry and Cocchi Rosa (a bitter spirit a bit like Campari) infused with orange and plum marmalade, and tasted as elegant and balanced as it looks.

While we were enjoying our cocktails, these snacks appeared, if Instagram is anything to go by already something approaching a signature dish. Choux pastries filled with a smooth, salty chicken liver parfait and dusted with pistachio, they were an unbeatable combination of luxurious paté and light patisserie, attractive and dangerously addictive.

House bread came in two forms - a very decent sourdough (best applied with salted butter) and a genuinely lovely soda bread which we were told to spread with a little bowl of garlic salsa of some kind, which sounds weird now I've written it down but at the time worked rather well. It's getting to the stage where it's dangerously easy to take a good bread course for granted in London restaurants, but it's always a good idea to remember these things are never a given.

I used to be firmly of the opinion that oysters are better off un-messed-about with. A bit of lemon, perhaps, or a dash of tabasco but otherwise please leave unadorned - they're lovely enough things on their own. Over the years, that opinion has been challenged by a variety of very clever and very successful "dressed" versions at places like the sadly departed* [see edit] St Leonard's, who used pickled black pepper and wild garlic to extraordinary effect. Unfortunately, the "lemon ice" which Allegra saw fit to cover their oysters with was a neither clever nor successful idea - sweet lemon sorbet being about as inappropriate dressing for raw oyster as I can imagine. The flavour of the poor bivalves were completely lost, and the sorbet set your teeth on edge. Not fun.

Happily for all concerned, though, the oysters were merely a temporary lapse in judgement, as everything else we were served more than lived up to the hype. These are meticulously boned chicken wings and parmesan gnocchi, neither too firm nor too mushy, all dressed in a lovely autumnal mushroom froth. Classy and technically impressive, with pinpoint seasoning, I can barely think of a better thing to do with chicken and mushroom. Other than perhaps a pie.

Speaking of pies, the other starter was also a knockout. Pithivier, geometrically exact and beautifully bronzed, was stacked full of smoked eel sandwiched in a rich seafood mousse, and served alongside a vivid green garlic-parsley sauce. Like the chicken and gnocchi, this was a masterclass in cheffy technique but also - crucially - supremely enjoyable, comfort food elevated to fine dining. I think we could have polished off about 3 of these each.

For the main, because seafood seemed to feature so prominently on the menu and because really, how many other opportunities do you get to order a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot, we ordered a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot. And it was fantastic - heady with alcohol but not bitterly so, meaty and dense and full of flavour, and served alongside plates dressed (a genius idea) with shards of crisp chicken skin and ribbons of pickled kohlrabi. With it came a cute little bowl of congee - lovely, but by this point I'm afraid the last thing we wanted to tackle was a thick bowl of savoury rice porridge. I'm sure if I'd had this by itself for lunch another day I would have demolished it.

There is, as we all know, a separate stomach for desserts, and with our valiant efforts to tackle the congee fading into the distant past we first attacked a treacle cake with cranberry jam, a deeply rewarding bit of pastry work that glistened like a sugary jewel...

...and this, a Douglas Fir granité with sour cream ice cream, pretty as a picture and a lighter, more perfumed counterpoint to the treacle tart if somewhat less interesting to eat. In fact in the interest of balance I should say that my dining companion really did not like the granité at all, but maybe she was just jealous of my tart.

Clearly, then, there's very little to criticise in what's coming out of the kitchens at Allegra. This is, objectively, a mature and profoundly capable operation serving the best of Modern British seasonal fine dining, at prices you'd expect to pay for food of this standard and I enjoyed it very much. As I said, it's a restaurant with serious ambition. I just worry whether this ambition is best realised in a rather soulless (it was about 30% capacity that Thursday evening, if that) new build on top of a shopping centre in Stratford. I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, it comes thoroughly recommended. Just avoid the oysters.


I was invited to Allegra and didn't see a bill.

EDIT: Apparently St. Leonard's has not closed. No idea where I got that from.


Ed said...

Has st leonards closed? I thought it was just that Jackson Boxer had left

Chris Pople said...

Ed: Yeah no idea where I got that from. Have edited.