Eating out: Cool but certainly not cold
Great Eastern Dining Room; 54 Great Eastern Street, London EC2. Tel: 0171 613 4545. Open Mon-Fri, 12.30-3pm, and Mon-Sat, 6pm-12am. Adjoining bar open Mon-Fri 12pm-12am and Sat 6pm-12am. Average price for dinner, pounds 20 per head. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 07 February 1999
You know this is rubbish, and so do I - but half the people who write about eating out seem to get their idea of East End cuisine from Peggy Mitchell's lunchtime pies. It really is frustrating to leaf through the latest restaurant guide and find the only decent entry on your side of the West End is a curry house in Brick Lane. It's not that the places don't exist - although they do require a bit of rooting out - but that most reviewers get a nosebleed if they stray too far from Notting Hill.
The one exception is Islington, a kind of honorary Portobello Road, whose popularity is a con perpetrated by estate agents who feed on the gullibility of new arrivals to London. The endless sub-division of the city's villages into the trendy and the passe must seem tiresome to anyone who lives outside the M25, but a good address can make a studio sell for the price of a mansion elsewhere. And the best way of telling whether a dead end is about to become a trendy enclave is by looking at its new restaurants and bars.
Now that Islington is full and costly, the empty warehouses and tatty residences of Shoreditch are the focus of much hype. It is being sold as though the boundaries of civilisation are being pushed back to make proper frothy coffee and pancetta available to all, and those of us who live beyond Hackney Marshes can only rejoice at the distant prospect of being rescued one day. The theory goes that if you can't afford Clerkenwell, (and Clapton's a bit too ethnic, of course) then a bedsit above a shuttered shop in Shoreditch will at least be within walking distance of some nice arty-class watering holes and nosh houses. Which brings us to the newest and perhaps the best of them, the Great Eastern Dining Room.
The culinary missionary behind it is Will Ricker, who owns Cicada in Clerkenwell. The building is a former fabric warehouse on a dark corner, only a short sway from the ultra-fashionable attractions of Hoxton Square, where the Blue Note club once played funky, vaguely jazzy, bass-heavy music of an early evening. The club has moved on, but similar chest-pressing sounds can be heard in the bar of the Great Eastern.
We knew it was the right place by the very posh scooter parked outside. Not a motorcycle, you understand - that would have been common - but a beautiful Italian machine with shiny black bodywork and chrome pipes that reflected the red neon sign above the door. On the way we'd seen the entryphones of video production houses, photographers' studios and design companies. The bar was crowded with their employees, but we were bound for the quieter and more intimate restaurant room, where a black-clad Australian from the Nick Cave school of handsome was waiting with a smile.
"Ah, Mr Moreton," he said, without looking down at the list. "Good to see you."
The staff was friendly and informal, like new friends hosting a party at home. When my partner had a minor coughing fit, the waitress poured water and rubbed her back. Some might have found that intrusive, but we felt welcomed. It's best to resist saying things like this, but the service at Great Eastern was the best I have experienced anywhere: relaxed and chatty, but fast and discreet.
My first course was also pretty good, a rabbit and rosemary stew with haricots. The beans were buttery and there were chunks of bread soaked in the golden gravy, which was an unexpected reminder of the bread and warm milk my mum used to feed me as a child. It would have been comfort food, but for a few tiny shards of bone that were damned uncomfortable. Rachel had bruschetta smothered in warm ricotta cheese, sprinkled with oregano and rocket. It came with too many olives, which had to be rationed to avoid overwhelming the more subtle flavours.
By the time we finished the starters and were halfway into a bottle of (very ordinary) Argen-tinian white, our bums were getting numb. Call me reactionary, but if I pay someone for the privilege of sitting in their room to eat I want to be comfortable. On one side of our tiny table was a wooden chair far too small for my foodie frame, and on the other, a bench upholstered in grey leather. The back of the bench was set at an angle more suitable for post-prandial lounging, which meant I had to prop myself up throughout the meal. A reasonably well-built man at the next table had to sit sideways because his legs would not fit underneath.
Black floorboards, dark ash walls and a white ceiling gave the place that slightly naff Eighties feel that you can achieve so easily with Italian modernist design. It was redeemed by the effect of dozens of tiny, soft lights on two chandeliers.
The stew had been so filling that I was glad not to have too many vegetables with my good thick slice of chargrilled rib-eye steak. It was almost right, but for a worrying raw and greasy spot in one corner. The parsnip patty and garlic mayonnaise with it were fine, but the green beans we ordered as a side dish were more gummy than al dente. The corn-fed chicken breast with bay leaves and little bits of lemon tucked under the crispy skin was a delight, and fell off the bone. Its lemon dressing was watery, but did not drown the roast vegetables, which included a carrot, celeriac and, oddly, a lump of beetroot.
There was no way of avoiding the lemon mascarpone cheesecake once we had seen it arrive at another table. The waitress put it between us, without being asked, then said: "Well, every couple orders one but they both end up eating it." She was right. The mascarpone was dense and crumbly, its confidence restrained by caramelised lemon rind and a little sauce.
We finished full, happy and relaxed. The white paper table clothes and plain glass tumblers had made it clear that this was not a place for grand romantic dining but rather a good canteen for the new EastEnders. Nose rings, tight crops and black clothes were in abundance, but thankfully there were also enough walking fashion disasters to keep us company. None of the other diners seemed out to impress, just to enjoy a good bit of grub in funky surroundings. Then again, to be so at home in a place with prices just into the medium range means they must have felt they had made it already.
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