Rochelle Bar and Canteen at the ICA, the Mall, London SW1Y 5AH (020 7930 8619). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £90
While we are having lunch at the newly opened Rochelle Bar and Canteen inside the ICA on the Mall, two open horse-drawn carriages pass by outside. They are carrying the recently appointed ambassadors from Lithuania and Uganda who had been at the Palace presenting their credentials to the Queen. There are feathered caps and scarlet coats and flashes of polished gilding. Cue a few pithy musings on the clash of ancient and modern; on the contrast between the culinary modernism inside and the clip-clopping pomp and circumstance outside.
I could get away with some of that. Like the rest of the ICA, the uncluttered space is made up of clean white lines and daylight. A nose bleed in here would be a shocking outbreak of colour. It is the unmistakable child of St John in Farringdon, down to the ranks of protruding coat hooks that ring the room like an ornate picture rail.
This makes sense, in a famous family tree sort of way. The original Rochelle Canteen, over in Hackney, is the work of chefs Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson, who also run a catering company. Margot is the partner of Fergus Henderson, who opened St John in 1994. While Fergus is always credited with the rise of nose-to-tail eating, with creating a menu full of chargrilled ox heart and seared pig spleen, of crispy tails and ears and long braised trotters, the aesthetic was as much Margot’s as it was his. And yes, they did bring a certain kind of modernity to London restaurants. Away with velvet plush. Out with the ephemeral. And don’t you dare stack food in towers on the plate. What matters is flavour.
Drill down on that food though, and the modernity begins to fall away. It is and has always been a self-consciously gutsy, old-fashioned kind of cooking. The kitchen at this Rochelle Canteen produces the kind of food you like to think you cook at home, but never quite do. It is solid and sustaining. It is British cooking, by way of summers in the Dordogne. On a brisk autumn afternoon, the leaves blowing across the Mall from St James’s Park are coppered and bronzed. The sky shifts between steely grey and washed out sun. This food feels right.
What’s more, it’s accessible – as in easy to get to. Sure, I will go to Inverness for dinner. I have eaten in Llandudno and Belfast, Cardiff and, God help me, Surrey. But Hackney? For lunch? Don’t be absurd. Instead they have come to me, and I am grateful for it. Because this is the kind of food I most want to eat, most of the time. These are big-boned dishes, made of ingredients that taste of something, served in platefuls designed for appetite rather than photography. At this new Rochelle Canteen, the butter comes in such a large pat you are unlikely to finish it on their crisp crumbed sourdough, unless you smear it on a friend and eat it that way. It’s good butter.
A plate of cool, candy-pink radishes arrives, alongside a hefty dollop of whipped cod’s roe, full of salt and smoke and fishy oils; we attack it with the radishes but eventually have to mop up the rest with the peppery green leaves to which they are still attached. Both starters that follow could be classed as winter salads.
Jerusalem artichokes have been halved and roasted to an almost toffee crispness, alongside stalks of buttered salsify and mature leaves of watercress. All of it is bound together by a slap of vinaigrette emulsified with spoonfuls of Dijon. The other is a play on the Galician dish of octopus and new potatoes, the two softened ingredients playing a game of textural tag with each other. There are handfuls of rocket and a dressing flecked with finely chopped red peppers.
And then a plate of oxtail, braised until the bone is just there as a little bit of light scaffolding. This is the product of hours at a low heat, the dark liquor by turns sweet and savoury, spiced with what could be wafts of cinnamon or allspice or star anise or all three or none of them. Certainly, it’s the essence of what happens when the hardest working part of the animal is taken down low and slow. With this is a celeriac and pickled walnut mash. This one dish is a swinger’s party for consenting ingredients.
The other main is controversial, though only for people who should get out less. It is described as a bacon and rabbit pie. It is an oval dish full of braised bunny, with big chunks of smoked bacon, in a liquor which smells and tastes of so many good things it could be dabbed behind the ears. It is under a golden, crunchy suet pastry lid, that shines. Obviously, some of you feel the description of this as a pie is a crime that needs punishment, because it lacks pastry sides and a bottom.
While you debate this, and write comments below the line and tweet furiously about the true nature of pie, know this: I don’t care. I couldn’t be less interested in your culinary pedantry. They could have called it a rabbit Wellington or a pig quiche or even a Watership Down royale. I still wouldn’t be bothered. Because what matters is that I got to eat it and it was bloody lovely. I got to bite through this pastry so rich in animal fats it cracked beneath my teeth. I got to enjoy the soft under-pastry, sodden with juices. And as I did so the babble of the room silenced. And if I wasn’t listening to my fellow diners, I’m sure as hell not listening to you. Get a life. Better still get a bacon and rabbit pie. It costs £16.
For dessert there is a heap of apples stewed down to a mess of sticky, sweet-sour loveliness with a dome of meringue, chewy inside and spoon-shatteringly crisp outside. There are wobbling hillocks of Jersey cream. A quince and almond tart, with its own heap of cream, is ready for its close-up. It is a triangle of crisp pastry, glazed frangipane, soft fruit and wistfulness.
And so, as the now empty horse-drawn carriages make the return journey, a lunch of all the good things is done. We have not drunk a drop, but we are intoxicated all the same. It’s not about modernity and the past rubbing up against each other. A meal here is about living firmly in the present.
A highlight of my summer was lunch at the Roth Bar & Grill, attached to the modern art dealership of Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. The food, served throughout the day and on Friday and Saturday evenings, is basic stuff, done well: merguez sausages or a beef carpaccio to start, followed by a grilled pork chop or hake, followed by a wander round the galleries (rothbarandgrill.co.uk).
The fish restaurant J Sheekey is both celebrating and supporting the people who supply them with a 2018 calendar called Seas the Day. All proceeds are going to the Fishermen’s Mission charity. The calendar, shot by Harry Borden, features the men and women who land Sheekey’s catch. Available from the restaurant and at j-sheekey.co.uk for £15.
Last Christmas the Snaffling Pig Co had a huge hit with its pork scratching advent calendar, offering scratchings behind every window. It was such a hit, they completely sold out. This year they have gone into production overdrive and are determined to supply all (snafflingpig.co.uk)