On a recent evening in Spitalfields events unfolded in an unexpected way. We had hoped to dine at the English Restaurant across Brushfield Street but, like too many places in London, it is humane enough to give the staff Sunday night to themselves, something that we should have expected but did not.
Nor had we expected The Quality Chophouse in Farringdon Road, long a standby for Sunday even if it was never the kitchen’s best night, to inter itself in the culinary necropolis, but nothing it seems will last forever.
We had not known that Canteen opened a branch (they now number four) in Spitalfields Market, not the Edwardian landmark but its addition to the rear. That is fitting: Canteen prides itself on contemporary design and it was, after all, Norman Foster who designed the elegant, unobtrusive and contextual annex.
The space itself is severe but not at all unpleasant. It spills out from a glassy enclosed room into the big floor of the covered marketplace in good weather, to surround you with the bustle and flow of the stalls selling all manner of goods. It is a nice touch that integrates the restaurant with its surroundings, making it both in and of the market. Furnishings appear austere in an ironic way: The aim is a wry reference to the traditional London workers’ ‘caff,’ if now freshened for the digital age.
Canteen aims at a kind of freshened tradition for the food it serves, but even if the proprietors insist without apparent irony that their cookbook is ‘unapologetically nostalgic,’ the food they serve is nothing if not dynamic. Perhaps their English is not too good, or their usage imprecise.
That was the certain condition in which we found our waitress, who could barely comprehend us. It is possible to meliorate such a problem with good-natured improvisation, but neither charm nor initiative were apparent implements in the inventory of her personality. This puts everyone at a certain disadvantage and ought to be something that the proprietors address.
As with language screening, they eschew structure at Canteen to encourage all kinds of dining all day and every day. That mercifully breaks with tradition to include Sunday so we settled for the place. It is not that we did not expect the food to be good; but none of us, and there were seven, expected it to be this good.
The extensive menu is fair as well as flexible. They cook breakfast all day at Canteen and with the exception of the steak (a ribeye) and chips at £18.50, nothing costs more than £15.50 (braised spiced pork cheeks) and most items considerably less. The daily roast with classic accompaniments rotates beef, duck and pork at £14.50. Those with lesser appetites may order ‘Canteenies’ of most dishes, half portions for half price.
All of our starters sang but three trilled most melodically; potted duck, a smoked mackerel ‘paté’ that is in reality a traditional English fish paste and Scotch egg, which quite simply was the best one any of us ever has tasted. The coating of sausage was crisp, the egg runny and all of it bursting with flavor.
Sunday roast is Yorkshire pudding and beef, pink, flavorsome, good. The selection of pies changes on a daily basis and does not follow the set pattern of the roasts. A mutton pie served during our visit was superb, a particular treat for the Editor because mutton appears nearly nowhere in the United States. If the pie bore no evidence whatsoever of the coriander, curry, ginger and mustard seed listed as seasonings, no matter; the rich meaty filling more than held its own within an excellent crust.
We could go on at length but nothing was not good, from a salad of smoked haddock with poached egg and leek to all the Old School British desserts as well as cheeses sourced from Neal’s Yard.
The attention to detail at Canteen extends from its design and food to the drink. The intriguing wine list is reasonable and includes a number of good selections by the glass; beer is superb. Canteen pumps cask drafts from the Meantime craftbrewers in Greenwich, offers a broad (but all British!) selection of bottled beer, cider and perry, and takes justifiable pride in the quality of its cocktails.
With an improvement in service, this would rank among the best restaurants in London at a fraction of their price. As it stands, the place remains enjoyable enough and excellent value for money in one of the most vibrant parts of a vibrant city.