There’s something wonderfully British about one of London’s best restaurants moving into one of its best galleries and nobody normal, really, knowing a bloody thing about it happening. The ICA has been about longer than almost all of the condiments in your fridge. It’s welcomed the likes of the Chapman brothers, Robert Mapplethorpe and The Clash over the years, so you’d think it would be a go-to for everyone in the capital. But it isn’t. It’s hidden in plain sight on the Mall, that bit of London that no Londoner ever wants to set foot in. So who does it welcome into its kitchen? Rochelle Canteen of course. The restaurant inside the grounds of an old East London school that you have to buzz into? Yep, that’s the one.
There’s an air of quiet brilliance about both of these institutions and it makes their pairing perfect. So perfect that we like this Rochelle even better than the original. If there’s a better marriage of public institutions in London, we’re yet to find it. The indoors of the ICA makes for a lovely light (and white) space and the food at Rochelle is full of lovely vegetables, meats, salads and stews. Bread is labelled as bread here. We’re not told what kind or how they’ve made it. They don’t even mention the butter. Both are delicious. At no point is there anything to suggest you’re eating some London’s best food in one of its best galleries. To be honest, it’s a surprise they even put their name on the menu.
This modesty runs through everything they do. The main menu rotates daily, because there’s no one show-off item that they feel the need to produce night after night. You could eat a stew here that changes your life and not see it again for six months. Oh well. Come for a slice of cake and a cup of tea, and you may sit adjacent to the couple having a three course anniversary meal. It won’t seem odd at all. That’s just the way they do things.
Here’s another example: towards the end of our meal on one visit, our waiter came over and asked if we had finished. Technically we had been finished for a while. Clearly, though, he’d been watching us wiping up bits of green sauce with our fingers and break off remnants of pie crust to soak in the remaining juice, like the degenerates we are, and so he waited. This is what makes Rochelle great. He then asked, “was everything okay?”. Everything was more than okay, he knew it, but he still asked. And this is what makes Rochelle brilliant.
If you’re looking for a place where the food is how it should be, if you know what we mean, then look no further. We can’t help but think that this is what eating is meant to be: shareable without being ‘a small plates restaurant’, filling without being a fry up, elegant without a gel in sight. Come here for lunch, come here for dinner, come here for a nibble and a glass of wine, come here when it’s shut so you get annoyed and know you have to come back. This is a British masterclass in modesty, on The Mall.
Normally radishes are eaten out of sheer empty fridge desperation. Here you’re using the leaves to wipe the plate clean of the addictively creamy cod’s roe.
If publicly acceptable we would bathe in this broth for the rest of our lives.
Any pie here is a revelation. This one had the crispiest of suet crusts and below it a minty, meaty pool for the mutton to paddle in.
Yes, it’s a bowl of green and pink leaves with herbs and a few radishes. It’s fresh, it’s bitter, it’s crunchy, it’s sweet, it’s soft, it’s tart, it’s salty: it’s perfect.
Potatoes with a wedge of melted French cheese. It’s basically the coronary we hope to bow out to.
Chocolate brownie ice cream and shortbread. Was it nice? It was chocolate brownie ice cream and buttery shortbread. It was inhaled like the air around us.