On the ever-spinning carousel that is the London restaurant scene, there are inevitably winners and losers. When Nuno Mendes packed up Viajante to help create London’s most papped eatery, Chiltern Firehouse, it seemed Bethnal Green would be one of the losers. But the space he vacated – the old town hall off Cambridge Heath road, bordering Hackney to the north, the City to the west and my flat to the south – caught the eye of Jason Atherton, who turned it into Typing Room and installed Lee Westcott as head chef.
Westcott previously ran Atherton’s excellent 22 Ships tapas restaurant in Hong Kong, but his cooking is closer to that of Tom Aikens, whose eponymous restaurant he ran for two years. He shares Aikens’ knack for piling up bold flavours that have no right to be on the same plate and turning them into something glorious, and also his fascination with creating dishes from different iterations of the same ingredient. (Mendes shares this trait too; I have a very fond memory of eating one of his desserts made using only milk in various solid and liquid states).
Typing Room looks similar to Viajante. The open plan kitchen still borders the dining room, only now everything is painted a fetching shade of duck-egg blue, and decked out in smart mid-century inspired furniture.
Being in the East End, the crowd is a mix of the restaurant savvy and the interminably hip. The bloke sitting at the table next to me didn’t remove his beanie for the duration of his meal, and I’d wager anything that the couple wearing matching black roll-neck jumpers and thick, black glasses worked in advertising.
Before I tell you about the food, I should point out that some of this is guess work – my waiter had a French accent so thick I wanted to run it through Google translate. I went for the five course tasting menu, which will set you back £60, or £95 if you want matched wine to wash it down with.
First came a wave of snacks: two small cylinders of “onion bhaji” filled with yoghurt and served in a ceramic bowl of mango chutney; tiny globules of smoked cod, oyster and dill atop a wafer of fish skin; a golden nugget of pig’s trotter with an earthy bacon jam. All very good.
You can tell a restaurant is doing something right when even the things that usually infuriate you seem endearing. For instance, not only was the bread – one petite brioche, one hefty IPA sourdough – served on a chopping board, but the butter was perched on a pebble. A pebble. With a walnut on top. And yet I didn’t feel any desire to fling it back into the kitchen, which would have been easy given its proximity. It’s just as well, because the butter was laced with Marmite and was perhaps the finest butter in the land.
The first course proper was celeriac with foie gras, apple slices and walnuts, which was light and smoky, the celeriac nicely scorched around the edges. Next was a small puck of smoked venison and turnip cubes, enclosed in a beetroot jelly and served next to a mound of powdered horseradish “snow”. A lot of effort for something with a diameter of approximately 7cm.
This was followed by one of Westcott’s signature dishes, which involves taking a cauliflower and doing things to it that probably contravene the Geneva Convention. The result is a tower of deep-fried, dehydrated, shallow-fried and pureed cauliflower, served with grapes (the menu calls them raisins but I’m not to be fooled) and apparently capers, although I couldn’t see any.
The scallops with passion fruit and kohlrabi (an optional extra priced at £12) was the only real disappointment. Cross-sections of kohlrabi – a type of cabbage – were folded around the scallops, but the pureed passion fruit was so overpowering I had to poke around with a fork to make sure they hadn’t forgotten the sea food altogether.
At this point a waiter appeared with a box roughly big enough to house a small human head. He opened a drawer at the front to reveal a slice of venison on a bed of pine needles, stewing in a cloud of smoke. It reminded me of getting stoned in someone’s car as a teenager. Apparently the box is specially made. I asked if it had a name and the waiter suggested “smoking box”, which I think he made up on the spot. The venison reemerged a few minutes later atop a slice of pear and draped in cabbage; it was as rich and charcoaly as you’d expect from something you’ve just seen sitting in a box of smoke.
Dessert was a bit of a blur. I was still trying to come to terms with what he’d done to the cauliflower. I had something involving chocolate with orange and sherry, and El Pye had sheep’s yoghurt, apple and dill, which looked complicated and involved petals. She liked it.
Typing Room feels entirely comfortable in its own skin, with food that feels effortless despite the monumental amount of effort I suspect goes into pretty much everything. Even the crockery’s great.
It’s one of those places that even when the food misses the mark, you find yourself at least applauding its verve. And best of all, I can walk home afterwards; you can keep your Chiltern Firehouse, I’m more than happy with Typing Room as my local.
First published in City A.M.