Table of Four went all radical this week and became two tables of, er, two. We went in search of old favourites, just to check in and make sure they were still performing to standard as recent voyages into the unknown had taken us off the beaten track. Besides some things are better the 10th time round – to name a couple of examples Upper Street’s Pasha’s mixed meze and grill – brilliant value and consistently perfect or Royal China’s (chain but best at Canary Wharf) slow roasted pork belly – the food of emperors, obese and gout ridden emperors at that, but the Londonist happily risks a cholesterol crisis once every 3 months or so in pursuit of this particular delectation.
So a table of two skipped down Brick Lane for what should surely be considered a London tradition, and is certainly a Londonist one. We went late too, Saturday night in that post beer swill of cheerful hunger. There’s something reassuring about wandering down Brick Lane in its outpost, almost pedestrianised setting; a place where food can be cheap and cheerful and more than that reliable. There should be no risks here given the competition and the focus of entirely Bengali/Pakistani/North Indian cuisine. Of course this inevitably leads to a lack of variation; the urban myth that there is actually only ONE kitchen sweating vigorously somewhere underneath Bethnal Green and supplying all these restaurants via a network of tunnels exists for a good reason.
Café Naz has two branches parked at the Whitechapel end of the street and we visited the puzzlingly brightly lit restaurant famous for its good value lunchtime buffets. Ordering from the full menu was a no brainer as the chefs specials did not appear to be particularly big or clever so we opted for curry, a grill, the usual accompaniments and a couple of sides. Chicken curry was standard, nothing more or less but the mixed grill was an abomination. Most of the chicken was bone and fat (even the ‘breast’) whilst the sheek kebab, a dish that can be perfect in its simplicity and balance, had obviously been reheated several times with the resulting taste and appearance of a plastic dog turd. Unforgivable. The same doo-doo had been flattened, drenched in reused vegetable oil, inserted into a bread that had apparently been sun dried in the Gobi Desert and then blackened in a smithy to produce what the menu alleged was a keema naan. Unbelievable. The rice and dal were reasonable but the Paneer Makhni, cheese in a tomato and cream sauce, had been annihilated by the unnecessary use of food colouring, giving it that a strange tangy edge that only cooked cochineal can produce. This was all topped off by having to eat whilst four staff set up the buffet table for the next day directly in front of us, shrieking at each other constantly for about fifteen minutes as they went. An absolute affront and a real disappointment after years of reasonable food and service. We won’t be going back.
The other ‘table of two’ fared much, much better however. Cru opened a couple of years ago in a glare of publicity that denoted Hoxton’s coming of age from trendy-place-to-drink-but-how-the-hell-do-I-get-home strip of bars to some serious foodie hot spots to give the West End a run for its money (think the Real Greek, Fifteen and The Hoxton Bar and Kitchen). Cosy but modern describes the environment and the staff and with a user friendly wine list, this place seems to give you a little shoulder rub as soon as you take your seat.
Stunning Mediterranean food is the order of the day, all day, every day and whilst just as great for brunch (Table of 4 collectively deplores this expression but what else do you call that breakfast-lunch-hangover-management feed?) or a hearty dinner, the tapas (or mezze or antipasti, depending on your purist viewpoint) are some of the best in London. Grilled fennel with dill was tart and fruity but still maintained its savoury edge with careful dressing - a perfect winter salad. Another salad of mozzarella and tomato with a mouthwatering pesto drizzle was a simple but lovely - the buffalo was a rich dollop of dairy heaven. Staples like patatas bravas and a mushroom brushcetta were simple and therefore good. There were however two absolute classics of Italian sausages with lentils and a spinach and pumpkin frittata. The former was a fabulously rich confit with every little bead imbued with meaty sauce and velvety texture. The latter was amazing by any restaurant’s standards– straight from the pan into service where the golden omelette bound together perfectly matched seasonal vegetables with a fluffiness that can only be achieved with gentle cooking and excellent ingredients. And guess what? Just cheaper than Café Naz.
It’s disappointing to see places resting on their laurels, like Café Naz, but Table of Four would rather look at the positives - for every bad sheek kebab in this world there’ll be a great Italian sausage, just around the corner (literally). Consistency of the kind encountered at Cru should be treasured and preserved. It’ll be interesting to see if they expand to chain proportions, like Café Naz, but in the meantime take advantage of this unique little wonder and for goodness sake, try that frittata before pumpkin goes out of season.
Both around £20 per head including one bottle of wine/beers, service discretionary.