I really don't know why it took me so long to go back to Rochelle Canteen. Maybe it had something to do with the fact you have to go through a school door to get to it - my relationship with learning was complicated. You buzz for entry through the 'Boys' gate to find yourself in a small, partly-lawned school yard. Ignoring the Victorian red-brick building you follow your nose to the bike shed. That's more like it.
The door opens straight into the small, plainly stylish dining room set for communal eating, with the kitchen off to the left. As you can see from the photograph it's quite a small space, around 30 covers, so it's best to book ahead. In summer, tables are set up outside amongst a few pots of herbs and the odd bike. This is Spitalfields so don't expect fancy. I would say it's classy.
The menu changes daily and there is a blackboard of specials. Rochelle Canteen's food is reliably seasonal and has the knack of being just what you want to suit the weather. Chorizo and Potato Soup matched the stop-start feeling of spring this year. Jersey Royal potatoes, Watercress and Soft Boiled Egg acknowledged the welcome appearance of the first potato of the year and the return of the peppery cress. We ate a generous, creamy, portion of Brandade on Toast, a perfect balance between salt cod and potato. Poor weather has caused the Asparagus season to get off to a haphazard start so a few Essex-grown spears simply served with clarified butter and a mound of sea salt was gratefully devoured.
Mains of Boiled Meats and Green Sauce, Wild Sea Trout, Kohlrabi & Cucumber were on offer but Pollock Chips & Tartare Sauce proved too hard to resist for one. The fish was fresh and flaky, the batter crispy, the chips just what you hope for. The tartare sauce alongside was a bit too punchy for the Pollock but the traditional option of malt vinegar suited better. Lamb, Artichoke and Rocket Salad was a plentiful plate of silky, pink roast, possibly hogget, given its good flavour, with well-dressed fresh artichokes and leaves. We never made it to pudding but could have had Merinques and Poached Rhubarb, Lemon Posset and Strawberries (presumably Gariguette), or ice-creams. You do need a good appetite if you're going to manage three courses here.
Rochelle Canteen is run by Melanie Arnold & Margot Henderson (wife of Fergus Henderson of the St John establishments). The cooking is gutsy and unflashy, less full-on than at St John. It has no drinks licence but you can take a bottle - they charge a very fair £5 corkage. When we were there a group of wine buffs were having a whale of a time pairing wine with the food. It was nice to see them leave the unfinished bottles on the lunch table being set up for the chefs at the end of service. The staff care and it's a good team.
You can't help wondering, as you look out onto the schoolyard, where all the kids are. Rochelle School was built to educate the children of The Boundary Estate which replaced the Victoran slums centred around Old Nichol Street. Arthur Morrison drew inspiration for his book 'A child of the Jago' from the area. Head for the distinctive landmark of Arnold Circus with its bandstand raised high on a mound. It's midway between trendy, neat Hoxton Square and vibrant, dishevelled Brick Lane. There is still a school in the Circus but the main Rochelle building now houses arts and media businesses and provides exhibition spaces. The former bike shed serves as their Canteen but there is more around. Calvert Avenue, running off Arnold Circus is home to the lovely Leila's Shop and Cafe. Trendy Redchurch Street is a 5 minute walk away and you can go East to Columbia Road flower market in 10.
Tel: 020 7729 5677
Open Mon-Friday for breakfast, lunch & tea (NOT DINNER) 9am-4.30pm
Bring your own wine - corkage is a reasonable £5.
Around £60 for two including corkage
NEAREST TUBE STATIONS: Liverpool Street
Evie's blog: Saffron Strands - A more detailed version of this article