There are many good things to say about Café Cecilia, but can I start with the shallowest? You can exit the freeway from the plains, zigzag through the surface streets of east London, turn onto Andrews Road and park. Just outside. You can sit in a window seat, admire the canal, the narrowboats, the vast Victorian gasworks and your car. It’s disorienting. I don’t think it impaired my critical faculties, but I was halfway down the main road before I could help but stare out the window at my decomposing SUV and say dumbly, “Look, my car !” I mean, it’s “Gritty E8”. I only managed the Dream Parking restaurant in Los Angeles.
OKAY. Sufficient. I’m sure you will go by bike, electric scooter or on foot. No matter. But I know you’ll go, and I’ll tell you why. Café Cecilia was created by Max Rocha, scion of the fabulous fashion family, in a carefully designed new build in the most gentrified part of Hackney. The staff are beautifully and bizarrely dressed by sister Simone Rocha, the butler in a parachute dress and rubber clogs, the waiters looking like the winners of the Most Stylish Apparatchik contest at a tractor fair in Magnitogorsk.
Bettors are even more skilled. Couture vultures, lured by the place’s fashion pedigree, arrive in stylish dribs and low-key drabs from London’s four postcodes that still contain enough disposable income to dress for lunch. Everyone but me is thin.
My server at lunch had a level of intense hyper-engagement that betrayed a theatrical background. He started by drawing my attention to the chalkboard of specialties on which, he said, everything – the pork pie, the coppa steaks, the prosciutto and the braised shoulder – came from the same pig. “May I know his name?” I asked mischievously, and the poor guy replied “Arthur”. Then he paused for a moment, slightly uncertain, and offered, “We know what he ate and that he lived through two Christmases.” . . “At that point, something died behind his eyes, and he kind of died out. I inquired about lemon sole, which went unnamed.
I ordered a salt cod brandade (also oddly anonymous. Why? Why does he hate fish?) which came with fried polenta and radish for dipping. Soaked radishes mark a place as a descendant of the Hendersons at St John and Rochelle Canteen, or the River Cafe, the latter of which this setup interestingly resembles. The brandade was irreproachable; smooth mash, lots of oil and the fish soaked enough to be polite, but not if its soul had fully sublimated. It’s a thin line and Chef Rocha follows it well. The polenta fries were nice, a bit greasy and maybe, ultimately, too much.
It was a weird quirk, but even though the portions were really, really healthy, I can’t remember a restaurant with smaller plates. All — starter, main course, dessert — tiny. But then standing in expensive spaces, being served by younger, thinner people, and wondering why nothing is big enough is my whole fashion experience.
Poor Arthur’s shoulder, once braised in milk with savory, was eaten. Cooked very slowly, so the meat shredded at a glance, and shamelessly interspersed with happy chunks of healthy fatty tissue. White coco beans, also simmered in abundant fats, were sprinkled with fresh chanterelle mushrooms. With an austere palette of muted earth tones, it wasn’t overly prepared or easily grammable food, but it scored high marks on flavors and artisanal integrity.
I greatly appreciated the lemony, grilled sole a point with lots of butter and a small salad of marinated tomatoes. No faults here except my own preference that a sole, even when served “whole”, should have the extreme edges trimmed with scissors before cooking. It’s a pleasure to remove the spine and large ribs at the table, but the hundreds of tiny fin spines all around bring nothing to the party but inconvenience and unnecessary frustration. The fries were ideal for contemplatively dipping into the herb mayonnaise as the afternoon progressed.
There was a very competent-looking ginger cake for dessert, all darkly spiced and broodingly complex like Tom Hardy, only coated in a thick layer of Jersey cream. But I wouldn’t let that distract me because, wonderful to say, the menu, as bold as brass, was fried bread and buttery pudding with cold custard. I’ve stowed away pounds of B&B pudding in my day and consider myself an aficionado, but this stuff was way beyond any recognized scale. Not slabby, chewy or gelled, but light and airy, almost like French toast. Fried for warmth and crispness of the wrapper. A perfect square sitting in a pool of custard at the perfect temperature to complement and support. I am sorry. I just can’t “be there” for people taking their hot custard.
The parking lot, the beautiful people, and a top-notch method actor taking the controls are all exotically Tinseltown, but Cecilia’s core couldn’t be more deeply British. It’s been 28 years since St John’s started, and the River Cafe served its first cuisine in 1987. I don’t know why, but it’s only now that we see enough restaurants “inspired” by them, burgeoning so simultaneously that they risk becoming clichés. I am comfortable with this as the working definition of modern Briton and am happy to adopt it, but am aware that others will call it tired.
It seems like an odd conclusion to draw from a trendy place in every way, but there’s almost nothing new at Cafe Cecilia, and I think that suits me pretty well.
Canal Place, 32 Andrews Road, London E8 4FX; 0203 478 6726; cafececilia.com
Tim Hayward is the winner for Best Food Writer at the 2022 Fortnum & Mason Food & Drink Awards
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