Thursday 17 December 2020

Rochelle Canteen, Shoreditch

Well, here we are again. Another brief gasp of freedom after another lockdown, another frantic opportunity to have as many meals out as possible before kitchens evolve back into makeshift field canteens, another half-assed set of contradictory measures that scapegoat restaurants, pubs and bars for a disease that is overwhelmingly and proveably transmitted mainly in schools, universities and care homes. The latest slice of nonsense is the Tier 2 "substantial meal" rule, meaning that to enjoy even so much as a half pint in your local you must order with it, well, nobody's quite sure - anything has been suggested from a £3 hot dog to a £25 steak and chips minimum.

It's hard to even know where to start with explaining just how unfair, unworkable and completely counterproductive this idea is. Firstly and most obviously, as mentioned above, there's no solid definition of what "substantial" means, so venues have been left to their own devices to decide how to enforce it. Some pub chains have insisted on at least a dish from the Mains section of the menu with each drink, a couple of places have brought in a special menu with things like £3 hot dogs to try and help keep the cost down. At least one pub I know of has a £2/head 'substantial meal' charge and will dump a large bowl of instant noodles on your table to accompany your entire night out. It's up to you whether you eat it or not.

The massive effect on food waste, is of course, the first obscenity. A walk through the open-air pubs and bars of Borough Market last week revealed groups of people sat next to giant piles of untouched boxes of food that they'd been forced to order with their mulled ciders, with no intention of being eaten. On top of this, the many drinks-led venus in London - and I'm not just talking about the pubs but also cocktail bars, craft beer tap houses, wine bars and the like - are having to choose between finding something - anything - to serve as food or to stay shut completely. Sitting outside, alone, in a beer garden, nowhere near any other human and being told you can't have a pint of IPA unless you order a burger to go with it is utter madness. None of it makes sense.

So for drinks-led pubs and bars the situation is critical. For restaurants, it's merely really, really bad. Nobody is having a great time of things in Lockdown Land but if you were lucky enough to be placed in Tier 2 or lower, have a nice garden to expand into, and - most importantly - are serving some of the best food in town, then you have a better chance than most of scraping through until the end of all this. And I am optimistic as it's possible to be about anywhere these days, about Rochelle Canteen.

Alongside a negroni - this was my very last lunch before Lockdown 2, but every meal out these days has a kind of desperate, end-of-days feel to it, as if it may all at any moment be suddenly swiped from under your nose like a stolen sausage from a naughty puppy, so I think starting each one with a strong cocktail is absolutely critical - we ordered most of the snacks including these neat little salt cod fritters, and a pork and rabbit terrine. Best of all of the snacks though was something described in that typical spartan St John way as "anchovy toast" but which turned out to be a gloriously salty and silky-smooth fish paste, mousse-like in its texture and utterly addictive. We had two of these - enough for half a slice each - but immediately wish we'd ordered many, many more.

Mussels were nice and plump and very enjoyable, but of course the main point of ordering mussels is to end up with a wine-y, seafood-y broth to dip sourdough into, and so that's what we did.

There was never any chance of my not ordering the only game bird on the menu, and the mallard was everything I needed it to be - tender enough but with a decent bite, skin beautifully bronzed and all of it sat on a mash that's best described as potato-flavoured butter. Perhaps I would have liked a somewhat more substantial sauce than the watery stock that surrounded it, but this is a minor niggle. It was still great.

I didn't manage to sample any of the roast pork before it all disappeared, but it looks decent enough doesn't it? Particularly that crackling which looks so light and brittle even looking at the photo I can clearly imagine the sound it makes when bitten into. Quite jealous I didn't, in fact.

Onglet had been simply prepared and simply presented, but by virtue of an excellent raw ingredient and the brave (and correct) decision to hold it for barely a passing moment over a heat source, it arrived addictively chewy and gloriously bloody. It's not a beginner's steak is onglet, it requires an honest appraisal of the relationship between man and cow, and a bit more effort in the eating, but is ultimately so much more rewarding than many much more expensive cuts.

Partly because we were enjoying ourselves so much, and also (mainly) because this was going to be our last lunch out in who knows how long and we wanted to squeeze every last drop out of it, we ordered the cheese course (two different cheddar-alikes which made up for lack of variety with a very decent taste and texture each), and a lemon pudding. And a chocolate pot. And a cheesecake. Oh, and a glass of Sauternes and two double calvados. And we regretted none of it.

It's about this time of year that normally I'd be thinking about which place to make my Restaurant of the Year. With a full four months where every food outlet in the country was closed, and with restaurants being very different places even when they were able to open, the decision has been made extra fraught this year; it seems a bit pointless to point anywhere out for particular praise when even simply surviving is an epic achievement. As I type this, London is back into Tier 3 - effectively lockdown - but with the vaccine not just theoretically "on its way" any more but actually already innoculating over 140,000 people there really is an end to all this in sight. And when we're allowed out again to eat and drink and be merry, it will be to places like Rochelle Canteen that will be waiting to welcome you, with a negroni, anchovy on toast and some potato-flavoured butter. Not long now, I promise.