Megan Abbott

Shoreditch & Spitalfields: A Guide

Megan Abbott
Shoreditch & Spitalfields: A Guide

If the West End is theatre, glitzy bars and overpriced drinks then Shoreditch is gigs, cutting edge restaurants and, well, overpriced drinks. On any night of the week Shoreditch offers up the best entertainment - circus training, harmonica lessons, ‘bring a duvet’ cinema - alongside an eclectic mix of food and drink. Though many like to speculate, it doesn’t look like Shoreditch’s time as London’s restaurant centre is coming to an end any time soon. Restaurateurs are still clambering over each other to open up shop in the district. Which means locals are just a hop, skip and a clip-on man bun from their next great meal. Here are five spots we’re salivating over in Shoreditch and Spitalfields this month.

Campania Gastronomia

Campania appears in all of its romantic, rustic glory on a small side street off Columbia Road. During weekends, and particularly during Sunday’s flower market, it is usually bursting with people. If you do manage to get a seat, either at the velvet booth in the main room or in the woody little dining room out the back, you can feast on authentic southern Italian food whipped up by a kitchen of Campanian chefs. Head there at breakfast time for olive oil fried eggs, Neopolitan sausages, rocket and pancetta washed down with fresh cucumber and ginger juice. Lunch is about as Italian as it gets. Alongside antipasti boards of speck, salami, prosciutto, olives and oils, the menu (which comes out of a printer in the corner of the room each lunchtime) offers dreamy homemade pasta like rigatoni with oxtail and slow cooked tomato sauce. The service can be as ramshackle as the furniture, but it’s all part of the experience. And with pasta like this in front of us, not much can bother us.

Taberna do Mercado

Another Spitalfields gem, Taberna is the work of Chiltern Firehouse honcho Nuno Mendes. It’s all about colourful Portuguese fare in this simple space. Given, we went in for a breakfast of filled mini doughnuts and creamy Portuguese tarts, but the lunch and dinner menu made for delectable reading. There is a selection of house tinned fish such as scallops with brown butter and mackerel with tomato sofrito. Which will excite anyone who has ever visited Lisbon’s famous fish bars. There are also sumptuous cheeses, cured meats and sandwiches with fillings like beef, prawn paste and wild garlic. Take note: It is customary in Portugal to eat a steak sandwich after your seafood. So don’t go skimping on tradition.

The small plates include cuttlefish and pig trotters coentrada, wild garlic with fennel and asparagus, cod and tripe acorda and pork tartare with cozido broth and cabbage. But frankly, there was not a single thing on the menu we wouldn’t have given our left arm to eat there and then. Unfortunately the lunch service had not quite begun. Which means we will have to plan a trip there as soon as possible. Either that or book a flight to Portugal.

Rochelle Canteen

Ever had lunch in a bike shed? Well now you can at the much talked-about Rochelle Canteen, which is housed in the courtyard of a former Victorian school turned creative studio complex. This dreamy little restaurant is accessed by ringing the bell of a little wooden door on Arnold Circus, which adds to the general feeling of visiting the home of some well-to-do relative. Margot Henderson, wife of St John legend Fergus, runs Rochelle Canteen along with business partner Melanie Arnold. The two have kept things simple; a clean cut white space with a kitchen at the back and two neat lines of tables looking out over the grass.

This perpetually bustling spot is for daytime eating only, serving a short breakfast and lunch menu of jazzed up British fare. Breakfast consists of simple favourites like toast and marmalade or granola with poached quince along with fresh orange and apple juice. Basically just a better version of the one you’d have at home. The lunch menu changes every day, which means constant revisits. Think salt cod fritters, veal and mash, ox tail with pickled walnuts, sticky toffee pudding and plum tart with crème fraîche.

Oklava

After finishing lunch at Oklava a couple of weeks ago, we made the decision to try every dish on the menu this year. The restaurant’s launch in November was a welcome one – there is an odd lack of good Turkish food on London’s restaurant circuit. Formerly the head chef at Kopapa, Selin Kiazim went on to launch a string of seriously successful supper clubs. Her first permanent space sees her crafting a menu that fuses traditional and modern Turkish flavours.

In our minds, a good meal should start with good bread. Which explains our joy at being served homemade bread with Medjool date butter. After being well and truly whetted by this, we ordered the garlic chicken with a za’atar crumb and lime mayo along with the spicy lamb kofte lavash with sour cherries and fennel yogurt. We also had to try the chilli roast cauliflower with red onion and pistachios. There may have also been a side of baked lamb fat potatoes with fried duck egg and sherry vinegar caramel. And we were rightly told not to miss the short rib pide (stuffed Turkish pizza) with green chilli. So we didn’t. Desserts include a chocolate, prune and cardamom delice, a spiced rice pudding brûlée and a pistachio sponge with caramelised white chocolate and barbecue quince. Our advice? Go with a group of hungry friends and order as much as possible, along with a bottle or two from the hefty selection of Turkish wines. And yes, we will join you.

Som Saa

While getting a table here is akin to winning a gold medal, it’s well worth the trouble. Housed within an former fabric warehouse, this is som saa’s first permanent space since their phenomenally successful pop up in Hackney’s Climpsons Arch. Last year, the team launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money to open a brick and mortar restaurant, beating their £550,000 target by £150,00 in just three days. It really is that good.

The bold, restorative cooking is inspired by Thailand’s north-eastern provinces, with heady flavours and eye-watering heat  at every turn. It’s about fresh, plump shellfish, leafy herbs, wedges of citrus fruit and crunchy Asian vegetables. Knockout dishes include a battered sea bass, which comes whole and pouting beneath a pile fresh herbs and blistered chillies, as well as Burmese pork curry swimming in garlic, fresh ginger and enough spices to tickle the most mature palates. Chicken with chrysanthemum leaves, flowering garlic chives and beans comes piping hot from the wok, while an aubergine salad with ‘prawn floss’ offers a cooling antidote to some of the more eye-watering sour-spicy dishes. For an extra punch of flavour, try their secret-recipe Bangkok Mary, which we are sure will go down a treat when their upcoming brunch menu lands.

Homeslice

There’s no shortage of pizza in London (thank God), so it says a lot that Homeslice has shaken up the scene like a fresh bottle of chilli oil. The Old Street branch of this small chain has two entrances – one for takeaway and one for sit down dining. The atmosphere is perpetually buzzing (having visited at most hours, we can vouch for that), and the blazing wood-fired oven is the life and soul of the place. Pizzas come by the slice or in huge 20” discs, laden with seasonal toppings like oxtail, watercress with horseradish and sorrel cream; goat’s shoulder, sumac yogurt and savoy cabbage; or corn, chorizo and coriander. There is a small list of wines, which can be ordered by the carafe, as well as classic sharpeners like Aperol Spritzes, Negronis and Magaritas.

Gunpowder

Once you’ve eaten at Gunpowder, the name makes complete sense. The dishes in this Indian kitchen are rooted in old family recipes –bold, fiery, textured and hopelessly addictive. Gunpowder describes itself as ‘a home-style Indian restaurant’, but anyone who has ever dined there will know that this is an understatement. The room is constantly rammed, with guests filling the low tables and bar stools up and down its narrow, bricky length. The pace is fast and noisy, in a good way. The menu is scrawled on a blackboard, while plates of sizzling Kashmiri lamb chops, baby chicken heated with spices and bowls of skinny okra fries. Kick of the meal with a rasam ke bomb – a play on the pani puri, a traditional Indian street snack. A crispy shell is filled with soft, peppery potato, balancing on a steamy shot of tamarind and mustard ‘water’. After that, share as many small plates as humanly possible. Try the sweet pulled duck with pickled carrots, the creamy soft shell crab, a whole broccoli spiked with mustard seeds, or the spiced venison with a crackly vermicelli doughnut. The sommeliers at St John have selected half of the wines here, while bracing Indian cocktails like the margarita with black salt, chillies, cumin and a secret spice mix are also on offer. For dessert, allow silence to ensue over a perfectly molten spiced chocolate cake with a gingery chai custard, or a warming bread and butter pudding dowsed in Old Monk rum.

Gunpowder might be moments from the hawkers and nondescript award banners of Brick Lane (“The Best Indian in London” says Debbie from TripAdvisor), but this tantalizing, heartfelt restaurant couldn’t feel further from it.   

Blixen

Blixen’s main dining room is a stunning feat of Art Deco-esque interior design and all, but the real showstopper is the covered garden room at the back. If you’re lucky enough to land a seat in this tropical paradise, you can dine in a room dripping with greenery, beaded curtains and lanterns. The room looks out over Spitalfields market, but has all the charm of a Tuscan garden. The restaurant has recently jumped on the brunch wagon in a big way, serving a daytime menu of dishes like eggs and sourdough with smoked mackerel, rosti with salt beef and dukkah-spiced avocado on toast. But it’s not just pancakes and scrambles - though these are seriously good. Blixen also offers inventive plates like pumpkin fondant with millet and rainbow chard, squid and chorizo stew with saffron aioli and a rib cap beef burger with a glazed cream bun and their signature relish. Consider all this with bar snacks like truffle popcorn and a cocktail menu that reads like a Fitzgerald novel, and you’ve got yourself a place to nestle down among the greenery and graze until sunset.

The Clove Club

On one hand, this celebrated restaurant is rather formal, housed in Shoreditch’s grand Town Hall with meticulous, seasonal food playing out over five or seven-course or menus. Yet the scrubbed wooden floors, comforting open kitchen, and views over bustling Old Street make it strangely familiar and relaxed. Head chef Isaac McHale creates modern British dishes using ‘often overlooked’ produce. Think buttermilk fried chicken (a signature dish for very good reason), flamed Cornish mackerel with rhubarb, roasted Cornish Pollock with seaweed and orange butter, suckling pig with Indian spices, and warm blood orange and ewe’s milk mousse. There’s a hell of a lot of wines to choose from, so go for the wine pairing to accompany the menu. Regrets may follow, but the meal certainly won’t be one of them.