Restaurants: The great unwashed
Hearty fare in the depths of Bohemian Shoreditch comes with organic extras and colourful local characters
Saturday 21 November 1998
Inevitably, entrepreneurs are beginning to pick up on the area, which already contains a number of fashionable bars. Great Eastern Dining Room is the brainchild of Will Ricker, owner of the popular Cicada bar and restaurant in Clerkenwell. His new venture occupies the site of a derelict fabric warehouse on the corner of Charlotte Road, the skinny street of bars, lofts and warehouses at the heart of Shoreditch's trendy triangle.
Nothing I'd read or heard about the area quite prepared me for the sheer "nowness" of Charlotte Road. Dreadlocked white boys whip past on mountain bikes, or stand around in clusters, examining sheets of transparencies and murmuring into mobile phones. Mysterious-looking bars loom up, with Japanese signs in their windows, and invisible signs on their doors that seem to read "you're too old and square to come in, so don't even think about it".
Suspecting that my version of street style - a Paul Smith suit - might mark me out as an interloper, I took the precaution of choosing a more mature dining companion, the musician Nick Lowe, on the principle that at least I would only be the second-oldest person in the place. Pushing open the doors of the Great Eastern's bar, Nick physically flinched as we were hit by a powerful wall of sound, an eviscerating blend of clattering drum 'n' bass and the raised voices of a mass of post-work revellers.
Thankfully, the smallish restaurant next to the bar area is quieter and less frenzied. Its design is inspired by Italian modernism, like a buffed- up version of a Fifties milk bar, with black banquette seating, bendy wire chandeliers, and dark wood walls, against which Nick's distinguished plume of white hair was mercilessly highlighted.
Though it had opened only a couple of weeks earlier, most of the tables were already occupied, by the kind of people a casting director might file under "Cool Britannia/fashion/weirdos". Shaven heads, nose rings and esoteric trainer derivatives were everywhere around us, and many of our fellow diners were wearing huge multipocketed anoraks with furry hoods, like refugees from a polar expedition. Nick's wardrobe choice of suit and tie plus Remembrance poppy began to look positively freakish. "I think it's fair to say that you're a tiny bit older than the other people here," I pointed out delicately. "I think it's fair to say I'm the oldest person some of them have ever seen," he replied.
Despite the fashionably austere surroundings, the Great Eastern serves comfort food of the Italian peasant persuasion. Chef Sharon Deer comes from The Sugar Club, and her shortish day-long menu features plenty of pleasing seasonal ingredients. Beetroot ravioli and fried sardines with almond aioli stand out as ambitious among some standard Cal/Ital chargrillery, and prices are reasonable, at around pounds 5 for starters, and pounds 9 for main courses.
My opener of sweet onion frittata - a kind of Italian omelette - came with a slice of salsiccia, a coarse and intensely savoury pork sausage. The frittata was a little mushy, and the sausage a touch dry, but the tastes were strong and simple enough to triumph, although a tepid brown gravy didn't add much. Nick's wild mushroom risotto was also hearty and honest, and if the speed of its arrival signalled that it hadn't been cooked from scratch, it wasn't starchy or waterlogged. Its creamy depths contained an impressive range of fresh and dried fungi, including some darling little orange ones that looked like magic mushrooms, but can't have been.
Distressingly, the risotto also concealed a sharp shard of black matter, like a fragment of pan handle, which nearly pierced Nick's soft palate. When it was pointed out to our friendly Irish waitress, she took it off to the kitchen for identification, and returned to report that it was probably a piece of earth, as the mushrooms were organic, and may not have been properly scrubbed that morning. Promising that she wouldn't charge us for the risotto, she left us filled with admiration for the way she'd managed to turn a minus into a plus, by using it as an opportunity to advertise the loamy freshness of the restaurant's ingredients.
Nick continued - now somewhat cautiously - with a steaming bowl of spicy tomato and mussel stew, served with chargrilled sourdough bread. More Creole than Italian, the chilli-sharp sauce was probably too intense a match for the mussels, which were reduced to contributing more texture than taste. My own roast pork with potatoes and vine tomatoes was more successfully balanced. The meat, rough-hewn and rangy, came topped with a wodge of crackling, and whole garlic cloves nestled in the roast potatoes. Best of all were the silky sheets of buttery spinach we shared as a side dish, which had obviously been entrusted to one of the kitchen's more experienced vegetable washers for de-gritting.
We were just starting to relax when two pinched-faced youths in anoraks strode into the restaurant, swigging beer from bottles, and swaggered menacingly from table to table. Though they were dressed in anoraks and trainers, like the majority of the clientele, something marked them out as Shoreditch dwellers by birth rather than choice, and a bouncer moved in rapidly to escort them from the premises.
This Bonfire of the Vanities-style visitation didn't puncture the atmosphere of blithe self-congratulation that radiated from our fellow bruschetta Bohemians. Two shaven-headed and be-pierced women were canoodling at the next table, new arrivals passed around the bar exchanging embraces, and one chap was holding a piece of bread to his head and pretending to talk into it as though it was a mobile phone. "If you were going to cast a British version of Friends, this is where you'd come," was Nick's not altogether approving assessment.
The pudding menu features chocolate brownies - always a popular choice for the recreational drug-using youngster - but I opted for the upside- down fig and polenta cake, which tasted as good as it sounds. Nick's lemon and almond tart was on the tart side of tart, but was tamed by an extruded flourish of whipped cream, "the kind of stuff Brian Wilson squirts straight into his mouth from the can", as he commented.
Our bill came to pounds 35 a head, including wine and coffee, and including, too, the risotto which we'd been promised we wouldn't have to pay for. We walked back to the car through late-night streets still thronged with post-drinkers and pre-clubbers, and past a queue of unsmiling rubber-clad exotics waiting to get into a fetish club. "There was a time when I fitted into a scene," Nick reflected wistfully. "It may not have been swanky restaurants and bars, it may have been a bit more sticky-floored, but I remember what it was like to glide effortlessly among my kind." And thoroughly traumatised, we drove home, to watch that evening's episode of Friends on video.
Great Eastern Dining Room, 54-56 Great Eastern Street, London EC2 (0171- 613 4545). Mon-Fri noon-3pm, 6.30pm-midnight, Sat 6.30pm-midnight. All cards. Limited disabled access.
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