Monday, 27 January 2020

Lardo, Hackney

There are a lot of restaurants a bit like Lardo. Pizza, pasta, short wine list, a smattering of cocktails, coffee and a selection of ice creams and sorbets. The mid-range Italian bistro is recognisable to pretty much anyone who's ever eaten out in the UK, and forms the template from everything from nationwide chains like Pizza Express to current foodie darlings Padella or Bancone. It's one of our most tried-and-tested restaurant formulas, accessible and recognisable, fun for all the family.

But settling on a successful template is only half the battle. For every stonking Italian bistro success story there are, lurking on high streets all up and down the country, plenty more places that will make you wish you'd never trusted them with your dinner money. I have my own issues with Pizza Express - I'm aware that huge numbers of people rely on it as the only place you can take the kids and not end up wanting to kill yourself, but I've never left a branch anything other than disappointed - but don't get me started on dross like Zizzi, Ask, Strada, and Jamie's bloody Italian, where the only thing more depressing than the experience of eating in one is that they're absolutely bloody everywhere you look. Well, apart from Jamie's Italian, which went into administration last year, thank God.

Lardo, then, simultaneously feels very familiar, and yet by virtue of so many of its ilk being so very rubbish, also feels like a giant leap forward. With no table booked on a rainy Sunday afternoon we were shown to bar stools overlooking the frenetic activity in the open kitchen, the kind of seats I'd have asked for even if I had booked. From here, we were able to decide which of the dishes looked like they were worth ordering - which turned out to be pretty much all of them - and just how much care and skill goes into ostensibly quite simple bowls of pasta and salads. House bread was a gorgeous sticky sourdough, possibly from E5 Bakehouse nearby, to be dipped in fiercely grassy olive oil. A great start.

Fried salsify were greaseless and crisp, a gorgeous golden brown and served with a nice homemade mayonnaise. Salsify is an interesting vegetable - sort of a cross between a potato and a parsnip - and giving it a crunchy batter and deepfrying it makes perfect sense when you think about it. These didn't last long.

Smoked cod's roe was a beautiful thing indeed - smooth and salty and fresh, and incredibly satisfying to smoosh down onto the toast to eat. The cod's roe bar really has been raised in London in recent years, with everywhere from Quality Chop House to the Drapers Arms offering an impressive take. In fact it was about the only thing at Norma that I'd order again.

The endive in this pear & blue cheese salad had clearly been very close to direct heat at some point in its history - the taste and aroma of woodsmoke was heady and evocative. The pears had been gently pickled, and the cheese provided a nice sharp counterpoint, and in fact there was very little to fault at all. Even the £7 price point seemed more than reasonable considering.

Lardo should be very proud indeed of their pasta work. Maltagliati (literally "badly cut") were bold, thick shapes, firm and with a good bite but not chewy or hard. They came soaked in a rosemary and lemon butter, which was obviously brilliant, and studded with crushed chickpeas which added a nice earthiness to it all. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the best pasta dishes are vegetarian; give me a buttery spinach & ricotta ravioli, or an umami-rich cacio e pepe over any number of winey ragus and crab and chilli linguines any day of the week.

Having said that, in order to boost our meat eating credentials, as a second main we'd ordered the lamb shoulder with polenta. For £19 you get a vast chunk of meat, with a fantastic mix of dark crispy bits and gooey fat, on a bed of polenta soaked in lamb juices. I was really very good, vibrantly flavoured and lovingly cooked, the kind of marriage of technique and top ingredients that only few restaurants are capable of producing. We were completely stuffed by this point but because we were enjoying ourselves so much seriously considered a dessert. In the end though, because we'd spent a bit more than planned and because the Tranmere - Man U game was about to kick off and we wanted to save a spot indoors at the pub, paid the bill and headed off into the rain.

Only two minor negatives brought the score down a bit. Firstly, although I was happy with the position of the bar stools they were immobile - "no bar fights in here!" as my friend pointed out - and the foot rests positioned quite low down, so sitting on them eventually became rather uncomfortable. This is presumably not too much of an issue for the length of time it takes to have a cocktail and a bowl of pasta, but you wouldn't want to linger. Secondly, £44/head for two snacks, a salad and two mains is by no means unreasonable, but is perhaps at the top end of acceptable considering this is Hackney not Covent Garden. By way of a comparison, a similar meal at Bancone cost £33/head, and that is right in the middle of the West End where presumably rents are higher.

But these are, after all, merely niggles. Lardo is a very accomplished little operation, one of the few joints in town doing this kind of thing genuinely well, and has quite rightly found many fans amongst Hackneyites. It's the kind of local pizza/pasta place that everywhere wishes it has, suitably family-friendly as befitting the area but mature and classy as it needs to be for an evening audience, the kind of flexibility and charm that ensures continued success. So, well done them. Now can someone please do the same for Battersea?


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