Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review: Canteen, Spitalfields, London

In a strange turn of events, I first became aware of the small London-based Canteen chain when I heard about their temporary pop-up restaurant in Covent Garden which is in residence until mid-March. I would imagine that, in a normal world, it would be the other way around. Evidentially, my world is (at least) a little atypical (not that I’m surprised). In need of a spot for an early lunch/very late brunch near Liverpool Street train station and Canteen’s Spitalfields location fit the bill.

Having called in advance to try and book a table, I was told that Sundays is the only day that they don’t take reservations. Not such a good start. So instead of booking, we turned up and were greeted by a flustered member of the waiting staff who didn’t seem to appreciate our request for a table. Eventually, we managed to establish that, yes, it was quite full inside and we could wait in a queue for a table indoors or take our pick of the tables outside. We chose a semi alfresco table under the glass roof of Old Spitalfields Market which was nicely sheltered from the elements and gave us a great view of the Sunday stallholders going about their business.

Canteen’s menu revolves around hearty dishes including braised, spiced pigs cheeks and daily changing roast - Sundays is good old beef with Yorkshire puddings but I’d like to try Wednesdays or Saturdays; roast duck with figs. They also serve an all-day breakfast menu, filled with traditional meals – the steadfast bacon sandwich – to the more unusual – rhubarb compote with granola. The combinations seem simple but well thought out.

It took a while for us to be noticed by our waiter in our open-air setting and once we’d ordered, we waited quite a while for our food. My eggs benedict was nicely presented but could have done with a touch more hollandaise to make it really hit the spot. The muffins were grilled until burnt around the edges and the charred taste tainted the entire plate. The poached eggs, however, were good and I believe that they can be a reliable test of a kitchen’s technical ability. One of my friends chose the mutton and vegetable pie of the day which was served with mash, a formidable pile of cabbage and lashings of graving. The meat was tender and it was a very generous portion. By contrast, my other tablemate was somewhat disappointed by the slightly stingy ‘Full English’ breakfast which turned out to be one sausage, one rasher of bacon, one flat mushroom, half a tomato and two eggs. Though the individual elements of the meal were cooked well, I don’t think that he came away feeling particularly satisfied considering the price, poor lamb.

After slow service and slapdash execution, we didn’t think that the 12.5% service charge that they had taken the liberty to add on to the bill was justified. The kitchen is obviously technically able but they seem to lack attention to detail and grasp of timing. It’s a shame because the menu is great; neither too long nor too short with a bias towards fresh, quality ingredients. Go for lunch or dinner when you’re not in a hurry for stodgy filling fare.

Canteen has four outlets in London. Tel: 0845 686 1122. The Spitalfields venue can be found at 15 Crispin Place, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1 6DW.

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