Finally the fevered hype which surrounded the opening of Hackney’s Cafe Cecilia has died down a touch. After a raft of breathless global coverage everywhere from the New York Times to chi-chi interior design brand The Modern House, what remains is what head chef Max Rocha set out to create in the first place; one of London’s most effortlessly immaculate new restaurants, with a vibe that’s at once chic neighbourhood bistro and heartfelt tribute to his Dublin roots.
You can’t get better restaurant training than at The River Cafe and St John Bread and Wine, and Rocha – son of fashion designer John Rocha and brother to Simone – did time at both, as well as at Skye Gyngell’s Spring. To say then, that the thirtysomething chef knows his way around a kitchen is an understatement. Their inspiration hasn’t just snuck through the elevated simplicity of the food. There’s something of St John’s minimal approach in Cecilia’s simple interiors, wooden tables and white washed walls, as well as the cheery but thorough service. Though despite its waterside location on the Regents Canal towpath, the full-length view of Cambridge Heath’s redundant gas towers doesn’t have too much in common with The River Cafe’s Thameside terrace.
Mussels and zingy Datterini tomatoes on toast came on like an invention a drunk student might make at 3am.
We secure a Thursday lunchtime table – evenings are still hard to come by, but try breakfast for an easy-in – and the place is packed. Stylish art student types rub shoulders with even more stylish septuagenarians (that's not not Ian McKellen and chums sharing a slab of Guinness cake to our right) while a couple of prams discreetly nestle in the gangways of the lofty L shaped warehouse-style space. Noisy, all-ages chatter is punctuated by occasional gasps as Rocha’s simple, perfectly done dishes hit the tables. Almost everyone seems to have ordered the bouncy, toothsome Guinness bread, which me and my hungry friend follow with a heaving, heavenly plate of savoy cabbage, romesco and creme fraiche. Cafe Cecilia’s sage and anchovy fritti has become one of London’s most whispered about dishes and it’s easy to see why; this tempting tempura popped in the mouth, oily, salty and addictive. There are oysters too, massive meaty and slinky guys which came accessorised with a tart slither of pickled cucumber. Ideal.
The mains that follow are quietly majestic, a successful experiment in making two or three ingredients sing at the top of their lungs. Mussels and zingy Datterini tomatoes on toast came on like an invention a drunk student might make at 3am, while the saddleback chop, colcannon and mustard is, according to my friend; ‘the best thing I have eaten this year’. It’s only February, but the point still stands. We also have it on good authority that onglet, chips and peppercorn sauce absolutely bangs, though there’s little space on our already packed table to add one into the mix.
Rocha’s favourite ingredient, Guinness, rears its creamy head twice when the desserts roll around. As well as Guinness cake there’s a Guinness bread ice cream, which came packed with chewy baked bits, never once making the mistake of being too sweet for its own good. Deep fried bread and butter pudding with cold custard took a classic old school pudding and made it even more indulgent with a crunchy churro-like crust. Chocolate and olive oil mousse was, if anything, too chocolatey, but those addicted to the brown stuff will be in raptures.
Such spectacular simplicity no doubt takes huge amounts of effort behind the scenes to pull off, but Cafe Cecilia have nailed the whole package. Believe the hype.
The vibe Normcore interiors, exposed industrial vents and fancy east London fashion types getting down to important gossip.
The food Simple seasonal sharing plates. Order the sage fritti as soon as you sit down.
The drink A good core selection of European wines, natural wines and cocktails
Time Out tip? Sit by the huge windows to watch London Fields' finest strolling by the canal.