There was a time before Instagram when British food wasn’t pretty. It was brown and beige, or the colour of fallen leaves. Pastry lids hid slow-cooked stews, and root vegetables were used all year, not just over winter. This is the sort of food still championed by Rochelle Canteen in London’s Shoreditch, and it can be a revelation for those not brought up on good British home cooking. Yet done well – and Rochelle Canteen does it very well – such food can be utterly delicious, and also transports home-grown Brits to their earliest food memories.
Mel Arnold (above left) and Margot Henderson (above right) met 25 years ago while working at the French House Dining Room, then set up Rochelle Canteen in a former school bike shed, next to what is now an artists’ colony. It’s plain to the point of being spartan, yet has a distinctive and pioneering culinary approach. There are strong resonances with St John restaurant, where Margot Henderson’s husband, Fergus, is the head chef.
This Rochelle Canteen is a new branch, but on an old site. The events space, gallery and cinema that is the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall has attracted generations of bohemians, artists and wannabe thesps for its avant-garde events. Despite many incarnations, the café and bar have long been afterthoughts: until now. Pass through the installation that looks like a warehouse sale of digital projectors and you’ll find a stark, white-painted series of basement rooms, very simply furnished.
There’s a bar counter on the right, small tables and chairs for café-bar customers, and a mezzanine level behind the bar that is the sit-down restaurant. Bookings are taken, and are already necessary.
The bar is a big part of the operation, with a permanent huddle of people at the counter. They serve teas, coffees, decent snacks (cheese and chutney rolls), beers and wines by the glass. If you’ve made a booking, sweep past the melee to the dining room on the mezzanine floor, where you’ll be greeted and seated in a simple white room where candles on the tables are the only concession to creating atmosphere. There’s no muzak, which makes a refreshing change. As the evening progressed the room filled up with mid-life intellectuals who were noticeably more affluent than the younger customers in the bar below.
The restaurant’s brief wine list could be described as conservative and old school, with Burgundies and Bordeaux well-represented, plus some St John special purchases; but the list isn’t rapaciously priced. The Berry Bros Wine Merchant’s range red kicks off the list at £20 per bottle (£5 per glass), and a mark-up of roughly 200% seems used for most bottles; many other restaurants add a 300% mark-up, or more. The glass tumblers don’t showcase the wines at their best.
The menu’s prosaic. “Old Spot Pork Chop, Coco Beans & Green Sauce” is about as elaborate, and as good-looking, as it gets.
The ox cheek with pickled walnut and celeriac mash is not a looker. For many it will be reminiscent of school dinners: a brown slurry over a dollop of mash. But appearance can be deceptive, because the flavours were clear, bright and thrilling; rich, but without being overpowering or heavy. The chunks of beef had been slow-cooked, making them ethereally light, falling apart at the touch of a fork.
A side dish of “Brussel tops” was the oversized leaves of the brassica, only lightly steamed then expertly seasoned and packed with flavour.
The type of fashionistas who visit the ICA will be aware that all fashion is cyclical; what is naff one season is what the cool kids love the next. A rabbit and bacon pie comprised a vast pastry lid stretched over a family-sized dish, browned and pock-marked from the baking; the meat within was well-flavoured and hearty.
The puddings are equally simple, and retro. Our two scoops of rum and raisin ice cream were ambrosial, putting supermarket tubs to shame; and a slice of quince and almond tart had a moist and melting texture that was ideal comfort food for a cold winter evening.
Be warned that the booking line is seldom answered, and the line does not take messages. I had to call six times over three days to get the phone picked up; email bookings are also taken, which might be the simplest method. Yet on arrival service was friendly and welcoming, if a bit amateurish. A drinks order was forgotten, paying the bill took some time. Yet the staff were clearly eager to please.
Rochelle Canteen’s not for everyone, but for many people (myself included) it ticks many boxes. It has a very relaxed and appealing vibe, yet isn’t too noisy; the food is there to be eaten, not photographed. It’s a good, low-key date restaurant, but it also works for groups of people and can work for business meetings too. It’s particularly brilliant if you’re entertaining overseas guests, and want to show them what proper British home-style cooking can be like when done well. The irony is that many of the recipes are not British at all, but reflect chef Arnold’s upbringing in New Zealand, yet they follow the Anglo-Saxon canon closely.
Around £100 for two for dinner with wine and service.
The ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH; +44 (0)20 7729 5677;