Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Corner Room: affordable genius

The Corner Room, Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, E2 9NF
Meal for two with much wine: £85

One of things I love about trying a restaurant for the first time is the sense of possibility. Whilst perusing the menu, enjoying a first glass of wine and in the moments before the food arrives, there is a chance that something wonderful is about to happen. The pleasure that comes with eating something brilliant is worth the risk of disappointment. Even more enticing is the possibility of eating something interesting and surprising, the sort of clever cooking that excites the mind as well as satisfying the flesh. Last week I paid a visit to the Corner Room, Nuno Mendes's new place in Bethnal Green's Town Hall Hotel, hoping for such an experience. I was in luck; rarely has a restaurant impressed me, and exceeded my pre-conceived ideas, as much as this one. Brilliant, beautiful and no need to book: the Corner Room is pure genius.

Unlike its more elaborate sibling Viajante, which has a separate entrance, the Corner Room is tucked away within the Town Hall hotel itself. We eventually located it by following the delicious smell of food, which was far more useful a guide than the slightly haphazard directions from reception or the super discreet signs. Compact but stylish, it fits in well with the updated charm of the grand old municipal building that houses the hotel. Which is just as well because it is where guests go for their breakfast. As is increasingly common in London, they do not accept bookings. Fortunately, my mother, whose birthday we were there to celebrate, was happy to eat early; so we arrived just before seven in order to get a table. We took one of the last available tables and it is worth noting that, on a Friday, anyone arriving after seven had to wait until after nine o'clock to be seated. I am sure the people who waited were happy they did, we were certainly glad we hurried ourselves to be there in time. 

Squid

As we were celebrating, we began with two glasses of sparkling wine and three starters. I'd like to think it wasn't greed but a genuine desire to try as many things as possible, I'm sure my mum will back me up on this. The wine was excellent and all of the small but affordable selection are available by the glass. However, nothing could compare to the cooking: not the stylish d├ęcor, lovely wine or even the charming but slightly erratic service. 

Belly of lamb

All three starters were magnificent. A salad of artichokes and San Jorge cheese was marvellous: the lightness of the poached artichoke complemented by the little hints of salty fat (ham) and piquant crunch (radish). Even so, it wasn't our favourite. Delightfully fatty and tender belly of lamb with tiny cubes of fried courgette and crumbly goats cheese came close. However, it too was bettered by another dish: squid with fennel and jersey royals. The perfectly-cooked squid sat atop a smear of its ink, tiny potatoes and a few slices of slightly-cooked fennel. We spent an age trying to work out what the green leaves which topped the dish were. Impossibly thin and subtle, we suspected seaweed but actually, they were the leaves of the jersey royal potatoes: genius. It was clever, delicious cooking without being pretentious.

Mackerel

We were more restrained with the main courses: limiting ourselves to one dish each. Pork with Portuguese bread pudding was excellent. The meat beautifully flavoured and perfectly pink, whilst the bread pudding was little cubes of fried bread imbued with juices of the pig. It was perhaps less inventive than the other dishes we tried but nonetheless delicious. In contrast, mackerel with marrow might well be one of the cleverest things I have eaten. Unusually subtly-flavoured and softly tender fish was paired with a thick black sauce of treacly marrow and slices of extremely crispy smoked bacon. The combination of flavours was inspired and the technical ability of the kitchen showed through in the perfect execution of the fish. It was the sort of dish you are still discussing  on the way home. Even now, I am wondering whether trying to recreate it in my little kitchen would be a brilliant experiment or a terrible sacrilege.

Pork

Still a little hungry (the portions are quite dainty), we reverted to form and ordered all of the desserts on the menu. Fortunately, there were only three choices. Neither of us was particularly impressed with the dark chocolate and peanut butter icecream, which lacked some of the flair of the other choices. My mother was taken with the bizarrely comforting qualities of the tapioca and parsnip pudding, which I wasn't sure about.  For me, the blueberries and goats cheese caramel was another unexpectedly brilliant and unforgettable dish. The dry fruitiness of the blueberries combined with the clean flavours of the shiso granita and the sweet, creamy but fairly salty goats cheese to create something that vastly exceeded the sum of its parts: more genius. We left satisfied but not stuffed; happy that we had eaten so well, for so little.

Blueberries

There are the beginnings of a foodie buzz around the Corner Room. You could feel it in the excitement of the staff, who know they are working somewhere special. And why not? If anywhere deserves recognition and hype, it is here. Go early and go quickly for, deserving as it is, the Corner Room is a very little corner of culinary heaven and, with only a handful of tables, the queues are likely to get serious.

Corner Room on Urbanspoon

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