Unpresumptuous, Delicious British at Rochelle Canteen

A cool but sunny Saturday afternoon in November found us exploring the East End, our rumbling bellies drawing us closer to Shoreditch for a 2pm reservation at Rochelle Canteen. I had seen the Reels and knew where the buzzer was.

We arrived to the door marked “BOYS” surrounded by a Victorian era brick garden wall, which gave me chilling flashbacks of boozy brunches at Finals Clubs back in the day. The impeccably dressed British couples standing outside even looked a bit like my former rommates waiting for the Fly, the Delphic, the Spee to fling its doors open, their Crimson sweatshirts popping through olive green heritage Barbour. I felt just as out of place when the door did finally creep open and our hostess politely informed us that our table was not yet ready. We had arrived unfashionably 15 minutes early after all. The imposter syndrome of my college years began creeping in deep as I scolded myself wordlessly for being so awkward, yet again. A short walk around the block to kill time and we were back there, seated under a covered tent surrounded by a pretty, green garden.

The Rochelle Canteen opened in 2004 in the repurposed bicycle shed of an old school, which was originally built in 1899. The brains behind the operation? Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold, who formerly ran The French House Dining Room after Margot’s husband, Fergus Henderson, left that restaurant to establish the legendary bastion of British nose-to-tail cooking, St. John. Fergus and Margot’s son Hector Henderson is now Head Chef at the Canteen. In the beginning, the place served as home base for a catering business, gradually evolving into a canteen for a creative collective and then a restaurant, which has since then left a vital mark as the darling of London’s food scene. I have not met a single person or read a single article with anything negative to say about the Canteen. And as we settled in, taking a first look at the menu and sipping a fresh glass of St John Mâcon-Villages, we started to understand why.

The social anxiety triggered by the Victorian garden vibe melted away as I took in the details around me: a gardener tending to a voluminous shrub just outside our tent, wholesome dish names scribbled onto a chalkboard menu behind me, the hearty laughter of some ladies lunching one table over, my handsome husband thinking out loud in his French accent, “Roast pork shoulder or braised Shet-land beef?” Maybe I belong here after all. Maybe I’m finally cool enough. My dad and brother both teach here after all… The menu definitely helped put me at ease as well, with British comfort food classics that maintain an unfussy, stick-to-your-ribs, almost retro cafeteria feel, but with a resolutely contemporary freshness and lift. The food is simple and seasonal at Rochelle Canteen, whose menu casts a spotlight on some of the UK’s best producers and importers.

We started with a fat scoop of whipped cod’s roe slapped onto a plate with some plump, pink radishes and a puffy piece of still-warm flatbread. Smoky, salty, fish oily and perfect, this was not our supermarket tarama. It was deliriously creamy and smooth, sure, but was also emulsified into a feather-light consistency, spreading like a dream over the crunchy-here-chewy-there bread. This dish actually didn’t even need the bread, as the crisp radishes and their peppery leaves served as great vessels for the cream. The peppery spice of the root married beautifully with the briny tang of the roe.

A deep red-orange romesco sauce slathered on something charred brought back memories of open-air calçotadas in the wintertime surrounded by the vines of Priorat. But here the something charred was not a bundle of calçots wrapped in newspaper but a butterflied herring, fresh off the grill. The delicate nutty flavors of the fish vibed with the crushed nuts in the sauce, while the bright tomatoes and peppers in the latter balanced the oiliness of the meat.

Ben’s braised Shetland beef was out-of-this-world good, transforming us both into children tugging at our grandmother’s apron for a snack. The meat (I think it was shortrib) had the kind of texture only deliberate slow-cooking can produce. Fork glided butter-smooth through steaming hunks of meat, which tumbled apart effortlessly into succulent, juicy bitesful. The meat was also very rich in flavor, absorbing the splashes of red wine and juices of the veggies with which it was stewed. A mound of white hot, sinus-opening horseradish woke up the senses, allowing for a particularly profound tasting experience. All that precious, flavor-packed braising liquid was soaked up by a mound of creamy mashed potato. No fancy plating. In fact it’s kind of a mess, in an effortlessly charming kind of way. A meat and potatoes dish, as hearty, substantial and comforting as they come.

I was thrilled to see the Chicken and Leek Pie on Rochelle Canteen’s menu that day and ordered it without hesitation. Out came a large, oval-shaped bowl covered with the most picture-perfect puff pastry I had ever seen, the dictionary definition of the words “golden brown,” “crunchy” and “flaky.” It crackled seductively as I tapped the top with the back of my spoon and shattered like glass when I dove in, revealing the still-bubbling, steamy hot contents: luxurious lumps of moist and juicy chicken with chunks of melt-in-your-mouth leek in a rich cream sauce. It was seasoned with fresh herbs for a mildly flavored ensemble in which the sweetness of the leeks really shone through. After downing a few spoonfuls of this decadent filling, I broke off a large sheet of pastry, taking a moment to admire its construction before dabbing it violently in the sauce. This brittle, layered, delicate thing had to have been made with lard… A chicken pot pie to put all others to shame.

This review would be incomplete were I to omit the fact that a stroke of bad luck in the kitchen resulted in our mains arriving a full hour after our first course, making us quite late for a table we’d booked for a World Cup match at a pub down in Southwark. It was stressful, but well shit happens, and it’s 100% how the staff handle this kind of screw-up that matters. Deflecting, defending and devising a way to blame the customer is what I’ve grown used to in France, so I was on edge. But instead, the staff was transparent about the issue, proposing realistic alternative options and finally comping our mains and two glasses of wine for the inconvenience caused. This gesture and the honesty around it turned the situation around, leaving us both with a wonderful impression of the meal, untarnished by the mistake. I won’t soon forget this meal at Rochelle Canteen – cozy, comforting and refreshingly unpresumptuous, like lunch at a friend’s house (a friend who is also a kick-ass chef, that is).

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