Caia is a tale of two venues. The upstairs room of this new Notting Hill restaurant and wine bar gives off an air of sophistication, with chic bar stools to perch on and floor-to-ceiling bottles. But there’s a clear vibe shift when you walk downstairs to the basement. Suddenly you’re at a ’70s house party, with kitschy-cool velvet seating, chandeliers and even a disco ball. And here’s the kicker: on the far wall is a massive vintage record stand, bedecked with retro vinyl and three turntables. The swish speakers pump out funk, disco and jazz, all curated by Noreen McShane of Stranger Than Paradise Records.
Conceptually, Caia joins the rising London trend of cool music-first joints that also offer banging grub and cocktails. But can this new venture from Rishabh Vir (The Fat Duck, Kiln) and Tim Lang (Streetfeast, Dinerama) compete with the likes of Spiritland and Brilliant Corners? Only time will tell.
To kick off, we grabbed the signature cocktail, the MiTo, which was tasty but not much different from your straight-up Negroni. Then after tasting one of the natural wines (from Broc Cellars), which was a little too funky for my liking, we settled instead for a trusty glass of Mary Taylor X Jean-Marc Barthez Bordeaux, which inevitably slipped down easily.
As for the food, first came the crispy chicken skin, an adorable amuse bouche that I would have liked more of. The wafer-thin, nutty skin was a vessel for a little dollop of preserved lemon and nori emulsion, which was a mini-explosion of umami flavour. A good start. But after that, things fell a little flat.
The joy of small-plates dining is to experience a carnival of snackery where you can mix and match and try new combinations. But on our visit, dishes were unceremoniously brought out one at a time, which didn’t really work. Only ever having one plate on the table meant the food generally felt lacklustre and unbalanced. The tomato-and-melon salad (in which the melon was curiously MIA) would have been a decent side to complement something richer, but on its own simply felt like eating a bowl of well-seasoned tomatoes. The sprinkling of Spenwood cheese and salsa verde-esque dressing also had to go into overdrive here, as the tomatoes themselves were dry and bland. Many of the other plates followed a similar example, just missing the mark: the octopus with burnt pepper purée had a fabulous texture, but lacked salt; the whipped feta and charred courgette dips made a lovely sweet and tart combo, but the veg to scoop up the sauce were limp.
There were some redeeming plates. As someone who usually detests sweetcorn, the perfectly bouncy-yet-flaky monkfish, served on a buttery, silky sauce, elevated the little yellow fellas to a new level. And dessert was lip-smackingly good. If a black forest gateau and a chocolate eclair had a baby, this would be the result: airy pastry smothered with a fluffy tonka-bean cream. It was sweet with just the right amount of savoury, while a peppering of cinnamon was a cheeky surprise that cut through the richness.
Caia only opened a couple of weeks ago and it seems like they’re still trying to get into the swing of things. Service was attentive if a little clumsy. The decor was cool if a little random. It’s got potential and I’d like to come back to see the place as it was intended: with DJs spinning vinyl and a motley clientele nodding along to the old-school tunes. Only next time I might skip the food.
The vibe Trendy wine bar meets ’70s house party.
The food Lots of small plates cooked on an open fire, brought out when they’re ready.
The drink Old-school European cocktails (lots of apertivos and spritzes), and a neat wine list with some natural bottles if that’s your thing.
Time Out tip Go later, enjoy the tunes. Treat the food as a snack.