On the ever-spinning carousel that is the London restaurant scene, there are inevitably winners and losers. When Nuno Mendes packed up Viajante to help create London’s most papped eatery, Chiltern Firehouse, it seemed Bethnal Green would be one of the losers. But the space he vacated – the old town hall off Cambridge Heath road, bordering Hackney to the north, the City to the west and my flat to the south – caught the eye of Jason Atherton, who turned it into Typing Room and installed Lee Westcott as head chef.
Although Westcott previously ran Atherton’s excellent 22 Ships tapas restaurant in Hong Kong, his style of cooking is closer to Tom Aikens’, whose eponymous restaurant he ran for two years. He shares Aikens’ knack for piling up bold flavours that have no right to be on the same plate and turning them into something unexpectedly glorious, and also his fascination with creating dishes from different iterations of the same ingredient. (Come to think of it, Mendes shares this trait too; I have a distinct memory of eating one of his desserts made using only milk in various solid and liquid states).
Typing Room – which has been open a while now – looks very similar to Viajante. There’s not much else you can do with the space: the open plan kitchen still borders the dining room, only now everything is painted a fetching shade of duck-egg blue, and decked out in smart mid-century inspired furniture.
Being in the East End, the crowd is a mix of the restaurant savvy and the interminably hip. The chap sitting at the next table didn’t take off his beanie for the duration of his meal, and I’d wager anything that the couple wearing matching black roll-neck jumpers and thick, black glasses worked in advertising.
Before I tell you about the food, I should point out that some of this is guess work – my otherwise excellent waiter had a French accent so thick I wanted to run it through Google translate. I went for the five course tasting menu, which will set you back £60, or £95 if you want matched wine to wash it down with.
First came a wave of snacks: two small cylinders of “onion bhaji” filled with yoghurt and served in a ceramic bowl of mango chutney; tiny, gleaming globules of smoked cod, oyster and dill sat atop a wafer of fish skin; a golden nugget of pig’s trotters with an earthy bacon jam. All very good.
You can tell a restaurant is doing something right when even the things that usually infuriate you seem endearing. For instance, not only was the bread – one petite brioche, one hefty IPA sourdough – served on a chopping board, but the butter was perched on a pebble. A pebble. With a walnut on top. And yet I didn’t feel any desire to fling it back into the kitchen, which would have been easy given its proximity. It’s just as well, because it was laced with Marmite and was perhaps the finest butter in the land.
On to the set menu: celeriac with foie gras, apple slices and walnuts was light and nutty, the celeriac nicely scorched around the edges. Next up, a small puck of smoked venison and turnip cubes, enclosed in a beetroot jelly and served next to a mound of powdered horseradish “snow”. A lot of effort for something with a diameter of approximately 7cm, but good.
This was followed by one of Westcott’s signature dishes, which involves taking a cauliflower and doing things to it that probably contravene the Geneva Convention. The result is a tower of deep-fried, dehydrated, shallow-fried and pureed cauliflower, served with grapes (the menu calls them raisins but I’m not to be fooled) and apparently capers, although I couldn’t see any.
The scallops with passion fruit and kohlrabi (an extra £12) was the only real disappointment. Cross-sections of kohlrabi – a type of cabbage – were folded around the scallops, but the pureed passion fruit was so overpowering I had to poke around with a fork to make sure they hadn’t forgotten them.
At this point a waiter appeared with a box roughly big enough to house a small human head. He opened a drawer at the front to reveal a slice of venison on a bed of pine needles, stewing in a cloud of smoke. It reminded me of getting stoned in someone’s car as a teenager. Apparently the box is specially made. I asked if it had a name and the waiter suggested “smoking box”, which I think he just made up. The venison reemerged a few minutes later atop a slice of pear and draped in cabbage; it was as rich and smoky as you’d expect from something you’ve just seen sitting in a box of smoke.
After all that, dessert was a bit of a blur. I was still trying to digest what he’d done to the cauliflower. I had something involving different forms of chocolate with orange and sherry, and El Pye had sheep’s yoghurt, apple and dill, which looked complicated and involved petals. She liked it.
Typing Room feels entirely comfortable in its own skin, with slick front of house staff, waiters who know their way around the menu, relaxed decor and food that feels effortless despite the knackering amount of effort I suspect goes into pretty much everything. Even the crockery’s great.
It’s one of those places that even when the food misses the mark, you find yourself at least applauding its verve. And best of all, I can walk home afterwards; you can keep your Chiltern Firehouse, I’m more than happy with Typing Room as my local.
Patriot Square, E2 9NF Tel: 020 7871 0460
Cost for two with matched wine: £205