Rita's, restaurant review: A bold adventuring in unfamiliar territory - but you may need to consult a dictionary

 

I don't know about this no-bookings policy that's taken over the capital's eating houses. What's the protocol? Do you ring and say, "I know I can't book a table, but I thought I'd mention that we're coming to your restaurant tonight and, er..." or do you walk in, in your eating-out finery, and say, "Hi! We were wondering if we could have dinner this evening. What, you have none free? Oh right..."?

I tried the walking-in-off-the-street approach last week and frankly it didn't work. I had the recommendations, the address, the press release, everything; the only thing I didn't have was a means of getting in. There was this big shutter, you see, with the restaurant's name on it in huge, theatrical letters as though on the safety curtain of a West End show – but this iron curtain wasn't going to rise any time soon.

What do you do, at 8.35pm in trendy E8, with two children to feed and no idea where to find a place worth reviewing? You hit the phones, monster your foodie pals and ask for advice. We rang three recommended restaurants, but they were full up. At the fourth, the front-of-house lady was briskly unhelpful when I explained that I was a reviewer desperate to find a suitable, you know, victim.

Then someone mentioned Rita's in Mare Street. I'd heard about Rita's. It used to be a pop-up kitchen in the Birthdays Bar in Dalston, offering American-grunge dishes like Southern-fried chicken roll in a bun; but in November it found a proper home in Hackney. The ubiquitous Jackson Boxer, from the Brunswick House Café, is a consultant. The chef, Andrew Clarke, came on board from The Salt Yard, the up-market, Spanish-Italian tapas joint in Goodge Street.

We rushed over. It's not prepossessing at first sight, because it's a thin, train-carriage of a place, with white walls, high stools, a blackboard menu and a view of a glamorous dining area beyond the bar. What you mainly notice is the buzz. The music of humanity is in force at Rita's, yakking and gossiping at volume.

Mr Clarke – a vivid, spade-bearded, tattooed presence like a jovial Hell's Angel – is clearly obsessed with Asian, especially Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai, cuisine. He offers 'fusion' food that's seldom been seen before: braised goat tacos, miso grilled aubergine, ox cheek with nam prik pla. He loves foreign words like calcots, toban, sriracha, congee and blintz, chucking them around like a drunken lexicographer.

A commitment to hefty flavours was apparent from the start, soy and ginger hot chicken wings were a tangy dream of Shanghai backstreets, all spice and suck and burnt lips. Poached calcots (they're Catalonian scallions, somewhere between spring onions and leeks) with minced pork brought a balance of allium pungency with piggy roughness; I wasn't keen on the Szechuan pepper squid, which seemed bizarrely sweet (but my young companions loved it).

The mains arrived with indecent haste while we were still polishing off the starters. I ordered, mostly from curiosity, the barbecued Szechuan lamb ribs with chicoria, fermented bean curd and buttermilk (had Mr Clarke been raiding the Chinatown supermarket?). Lamb ribs are big on bone and short on lamb, but these were as meaty as pork belly: soft, unctuous, cooked for ages on a low flame, the flavours conducted through pipes of white muscle.

Albert's chopped rabbit with wild garlic, peas and salami was a handsome, gutsy dish. "The rabbit's very chewy, but not in a bad way," he mused, "and the peas and salami go together just fine." Sophie's ox cheek, miraculously tender and blackened outside, startlingly red inside, reared like a fortress out of a rice-and-barley paddyfield – a 'congee', or south China porridge, non-specific-umami gloop that was oddly comforting. Mustard greens were sharply tasty; purple sprouting broccoli, cooked with miso butter, seemed a little soggy and sad.

Rita's selection of puddings don't do anything as conventional as crème brûlée or tiramisu. Here, instead, is 'Coconut lemongrass pudding with Avion mango'. Here's the Argentine favourite, dulce de leche beignets – but for an extra quid you can have a topping of foie gras. Yum. It reminded me of the salsicche at Bocca Di Lupo, which was a chocolate mousse with black pudding, but I didn't have the nerve to try it. Instead, I had a crème caramel which was fine, though I resented the presence of a praline in its depths. Crème caramel absolutely does not benefit from balancing crunchiness.

I was grateful for the serendipitous route that brought us to Rita's. Dinner here is a journey through weird sights and tastes, a bold adventuring in unfamiliar territory, steered by a charming and welcoming crew. But you may need to consult a dictionary back home, to find out what you've been eating.

Food ***
Ambience ***
Service ****

Rita's,175 Mare Street, London E8 (020-3096 1530). Around £85 for two, including wine

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test