When London's sunny, it is a wonderful place. It happens so infrequently that when I got an email from a friend inviting me along to his impromptu lunch booking at Rochelle Canteen, I ditched everything and jumped at the chance.
Rochelle Canteen is a well-kept secret, unusual, perhaps, for its location. Situated inside a school down the backstreets of Shoreditch, it is converted from an old bike shed and manned by Melanie Arnold & Margot Henderson. I skipped towards my lunch date armed with detailed instructions, for it is not exactly straightforward to find. Tables were set out in the sunlight, overlooking a pretty grassy courtyard; sun hats hung on pegs inside. A simple menu keenly priced and devoid of any fussy adjectives made me want everything, while a blackboard of specials tempted further.
A whole globe artichoke with a bright yellow, creamy vinaigrette got us started while we deliberated on how best the four of us could try out as much as possible. Pork crackling was a crunchy, fat-laced delight, while Bantam egg mayo was soft-yolked and seductive. Carrying on an egg theme, a dollop of brandade (above) was whipped to impossible lightness, the accompanying pheasant egg adding a little richness. The toast soon ran out but no matter, we shovelled it straight from the fork.
Initially I was a bit apprehensive of the rabbit offal salad with snails, mainly through ignorance of said offal. I needn't have worried as the liver and kidneys were cooked to a blushing pink, delicate and inoffensive in flavour. Each mouthful alternated happily between soft comfort and the crunch of a crouton, near-soaked with dressing. I'm totally down with the rabbit offal, though I felt the earthy snails perhaps a bit superfluous.
From apprehension to downright excitement, barbecued quail with celeriac remoulade was the dish I had zoned in on instantaneously. Quail is one of my favourite things to eat - Barrafina's version perhaps being the best - but this one was damn close. I marvelled at how the skin was crispy and had the flavour of smoke and charcoal from the barbecue, while the meat inside was juicy and pink. Cutlery was abandoned for feral fingers, an inane grin on my face.
They obviously know their birds at Rochelle; the chicken with green beans and aioli was a handsome dish. The chicken was a breast and a thigh, both crisp-skinned and juicy. Lemon-yellow aioli was punchy and a handful of green and yellow beans, generously dressed, retained their squeak. It was a fine example of simplicity in decent ingredients cooked well.
Bream with cucumber and samphire was as well cooked, the flesh pulling easily off the bones. Happily served whole, it gave me the opportunity to have a dig around the head a little to extract the sweet nuggets of fish cheek (classic Chinese...). Meanwhile, the kitchen was near closing and thankfully one of the party begged and pleaded with the staff for a bowl of potatoes. I wasn't that fussed (and was, if I'm honest, borderline full) but when the potatoes presented themselves, simply steamed and dressed with butter, I had a little 'moment'. The Potato Moment. It was the sweetest, most potatoey, silken potato I'd ever had the pleasure of eating. I tried another to make sure - yep. Best potatoes ever.
After such a potato high, perhaps it wasn't the fault of the lamb that I didn't find that dish particularly remarkable; braised until the meat fell apart with fat, olive-green peas, the hint of mint was pleasant but I found it all a bit same same.
After a little breather over some cheese (one variety only is offered - that day it was a goaty number) desserts sounded ordinary enough on paper. The ice cream was the very essence of strawberry, while a peach meringue with ice cream was both decadent and well-balanced with fruit.
Rochelle Canteen is BYO and we'd enjoyed some fantastic wines by this point. By the time we'd paid (our bill came to a meagre £30 / head before service) the offices of Bishopsgate were belching their staff homewards. Not even the hustle and bustle of everyone trying to elbow their way home fazed me, and I remember thinking 'GOD life is good'. Not a lot of meals make me do that. I blame my sentimental turn on Those Potatoes.
Here's the kicker though - they're only open on weekday lunchtimes, 12pm - 3pm (though you can also have breakfast there 9 - 11:30am and tea, 3 - 4:30pm). Whatever - find a sunny day, some hungry friends and clear your diary.
London E2 7ES
020 7729 5677