Café Cecilia

Falstaff Magazine International Nr. 0/2021 - SixPack

The first time I tasted the food from chef Max Rocha was towards the end of 2020, in a pub called Mannion’s, the finest Irish pub in Tottenham. Chowing down on a handsomely hefty pork, apricot and pistachio terrine, I knew this was a chap to keep tabs on. He was also knocking out a cracking Guinness soda bread `and sprats with mayonnaise – no nonsense, gutsy cooking, drawing on both his Irish heritage and his time spent in the kitchens of London stalwarts such as The River Café, St. John Bread and Wine, and Spring. So here he is, his first permanent spot on the Regent’s Canal in East London – the term ‘café’ is misleading, this is a proper restaurant – and from the kick-off, the menus and cooking here are worthy of serious attention amongst the rash of openings in the London food milieu. The vibe is indeed canteen-chic: a clattery stark white dining room hosting a fully open kitchen, the rattle of pans and hiss of the grill there to enjoy, observe and titillate, if that’s your thing – it very much happens to be mine. The opening salvo of sage and anchovy fritti sets the tone, the kind of salty fried nuggets that enjoy the accompaniment of the bitter twang of a Campari spritz. Perhaps two or three. A good start. Open from breakfast with bacon sandwiches, kippers and brown butter and capers, and homemade black pudding with poached eggs, the couple of lunches that I’ve enjoyed there already include some ‘must orders’. Rabbit pasta is a constant on the menu at the moment, ribbons of pappardelle tangled amongst delicate shreds of rabbit, bolstered by the grunt of the odd piece of offal running through it – satisfying, carefully judged, skilful stuff. Pizzetta with Taleggio and Parma ham, a crisp disc topped with cheese carrying a suitably satisfying honk, is a carbon-copy of the one wheeled out at The River Café, and it’s clear Max has churned out many of these there: joyfully, at a fraction of the price here at Café Cecilia. Onglet with a nigh-on-perfect green peppercorn sauce and chips, has also been on each menu since the opening weeks; ravishingly ruby-red steak, deep beefy flavour, expertly judged, and the kind of potato skills that show an Irishman’s devotion to the tuber – this may be the finest iteration of steak frites in London right now. More skilful riffs on the potato appear with a supreme potato cake, thinly layered potato pave style, two thick fried slabs, jiving alongside a wickedly silky cod’s roe and thinly sliced radishes: taramasalata that’s gone to university and emerged with a Ph.D. During the same lunch, we end up happily over-ordering, as a specials board knocked us off-kilter from the menu, leaving us compelled to order a Coronation chicken sandwich and chips (excellent, crammed with chicken thighs between toasted sourdough), and the tempting plaice and gribiche (spooned up to the very last morsel of egg, caper and tarragon-flecked mustard mayonnaise) – the same board led us astray into girolles and green sauce on toast, with a couple of unadvertised fried eggs, blushing orange yolks happily tipping us over edge. Desserts feature homely tarts and ice-creams, sorbets and possets, chocolate pots and shortbread – simple classics, zero faff, executed with love and aplomb. If there is a ‘caff’ vibe at all, it comes from the echo and jangle of the room when it’s full, and from the array of bread (excellent large roundels of crisply carapaced sourdough and Guinness bread) and a daily tart, all available to take-away for those on the hoof. It’s a clever trick to pull off a serious restaurant with the breezy feel of an all-day diner, but it’s also a savvy one, being a short stagger away from the bustle of Broadway Market, a destination and haven for discerning food-centric Londoners for years – the crowd in this part of town will soon sniff out the treats being served in this room. Some chefs are worth keeping track of as they work their way through some of the best restaurants in the land. We have one here who has made a much-anticipated debut with confidence and a quietly modest swagger – no need to keep tracking, we know exactly where to find him, here by the canal-side in E8. Reviewed by Zeren Wilson

48 /50 Food
19 /20 Service
14 /20 Wine
9 /10 Style

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