David Ellis reviews Café Cecilia: Calling itself a café is false modesty — this is the new ‘it’ place out east

·4-min read
Destination: Cafe Cecilia is becoming a place to be seen (Adrian Lourie)
Destination: Cafe Cecilia is becoming a place to be seen (Adrian Lourie)

I like pretty much everything about the River Café apart from the cost, which I gather is the general consensus. If you’ve not been, Ruthie Rogers’s waterside Italian is not really a café at all; it’s a very lovely, Michelin-starred shortcut to muttering “Christ” when the bill arrives. I mention this as Max Rocha, the chef behind Café Cecilia, worked there once, with innings at St John for good measure. And, liking both, I wanted to see what he might do next. Were we set for another “café” where the cheapest starters skip well past twenty quid?

Yes and no. Rocha — son of John, brother of Simone — seems to have at once embraced and rejected his tutelage. He’s abandoned the westiest of west London for the eastiest of east London, but then he’s still faux-modestly dubbed the place a café. He’s landed next to the water again, only this time the view is the eerie skeletons of the rusting Regent’s Canal gasworks, not the tree-lined Thames. The room is almost St John stark; all-white walls under concrete ceilings, dark oak tables, a slab of marble under the kitchen counter — but unlike Fergus and Trevor’s place, Cecilia goes in for art and music. Unsparingly dreary music, but music all the same. Oh, and the price? Fair enough, actually. The most expensive main is £21; we have wine for less.

The thing that Rocha’s really nabbed from both is confidence. Probably a poor choice of words, given it’s sweetly named for his grandma, but Cecilia has cojones. It’s making Andrews Road somewhere to come, and there’s a certain chin-thrust-out conviction to unashamedly putting Guinness on the menu and peppily confirming that, yeah, at £3.50, it’s the canned stuff, and what of it? But none of lunch came with an arrogantly curled lip; it feels too honest for that.

The oft-changing menu is affably easy to follow (“Rabbit Pasta”), and given to a kind of nursery-rhyme poetry (“Beetroots, Their Tops and Ricotta”). You’d call it unassuming, except they know it’s good. Sometimes you can just tell.

For the allotment illiterate, the tops of beetroots are stems, green leaf flags waving from purple ropes used to hoist the bodies free of the soil. Here, those ropes are coiled up with the flags under chunks of beetroot oiled and salted, earthy but not bitter, with cratered spoonfuls of ricotta adding creaminess. It is one of those simple dishes that pleases completely. Could I do this at home, I wondered, before coming to my senses and cheerily dipping an anchovy deep-fried with sage into the ricotta.

Generous wedge: the hake with tomatoes (Adrian Lourie)
Generous wedge: the hake with tomatoes (Adrian Lourie)

Wrong-footed by the suggestion that a special of fried eggs set on toast and lovingly smothered with mushrooms was a starter, the rabbit pasta proved mostly too much, which wasn’t such a bad thing as the broad lengths of pappardelle had slunk from the water a minute or two early. The fact the rabbit was beautifully done made this irritation seem cruel, a deft mimicry of the way it should have been.

We had better luck with a generous wedge of hake, which had left the pan right on time; the tomatoes it came alongside, reds and greens in lots of yellow oil, were a treat, with a distinctly floral note I loved until I headed to the loo and thought I recognised it in the scent of the handwash. Ah, but it must have been my imagination — that or they really are manically committed to consistency. Still, I thought about that piece of hake all day.

Probably a poor choice of words, given it’s sweetly named for his grandma, but Cecilia has cojones

Breakfast is for walk-ins only, while lunch reservations are presently all but impossible to land. Though I arrived at an empty place when I belatedly took my 12.15 sitting, enjoying the pan rattling charms of a kitchen busy in prep, later the room became loud with both fashion and food types.

Rocha, who says he finds solace from the dark of depression in kitchens, is admirably conscious of not working his team too hard too soon, but supper service will follow. I suspect it will be a hit.

Sometimes friends wonder where the “it” place presently is. I’m not a very “it” person, to tell you the truth of it, but I think Café Cecilia might quietly just be the one; there’s another thing he picked up from Ruthie. Get in quick.

32 Andrews Rd, E8 4RL. Meal for two plus drinks and service, around £125. Open Wednesday to Sunday for breakfast, 9-10.30am, and lunch, noon-3.30pm. Supper service to follow; cafececilia.com

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