A simple space on the first floor of the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green gives little away, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent that someone has a sense of humour: a spiral staircase leading nowhere; lamps hung at spectacularly varying heights; no external telephone. The place is unassuming. The menu is the same. Three ingredients are listed for each dish, with no indication as to how they’re to be prepared or served. Portuguese chef, Nuno Mendes – who trained at El Bulli – is best known for working his magic at Michelin-starred Viajante, downstairs, so as you settle into your seats at Corner Room you feel like you might just be in for a treat. And you’re not wrong there.
With three courses for £21, Corner Room must compete as one of the best value lunches in London. A very reasonable cover charge of £1 per person included (bland) white and (excellent) walnut bread with freshly churned butter, and unlimited still/sparkling water. Take my pound, I can’t complain. Service began a little coldly, probably because we were ten minutes late for our reservation, and the place was nearing full-capacity at 1:30pm. Soon enough, however, staff became good-humoured, and dishes were brought swiftly and fluently explained with a smile. My lunch companion’s beetroot and crumbly goats curd with black mustard was an eyeful of purples, greens, whites, and reds. I’m told it tasted as good as it looked. Less of a picture, but no less pleasant was my starter of pig’s head. No words on a menu fill me with such joy as those. I don’t find pig’s head. It finds me. Last month, I raved about the Arbutus version. This nearly topped it. Nestled under a peppery dandelion salad was the soft, salty pig cheek, with some hazelnuts thrown in for texture. I say thrown; everything is placed so particularly that there can’t be any madness to the method. Pig’s head. I salivate just writing it.
Around ten young, well-chosen wines comprise their mainly European selection. I thoroughly enjoyed the Angliolino Maule “i Masieri” 2011, Veneto (£32 for 750ml). Being vinified in stainless steel, and having minimum amounts of sulphite added, it’s a so-called ‘naturally-produced wine’. You really can taste its purity in bright, mineral notes and the touch of apple and sherbet on the finish. Don’t be fooled by the brevity of the wine list – they’ve done the work so you don’t have to. Excellence, however, comes at a price: bottles start at a frown-inducing £28. No matter, it is worth it.
A main of cod with clam porridge (very Heston), we agreed, was the standout dish. Flakes of moist, oily fish lay on a razor clam, spring onion, and coriander porridge, and packed a mighty punch. The cod could have been overpowered, but managed to find its way around each pocket of flavour, and two crisp curls of deep-fried cod skin provided all-important crunch. The only disappointment was the plaice with brown butter puree and chard, which looked the least spectacular of all the plates leaving the kitchen. Although everything was cooked beautifully, little of it went together; the overly-strong sweetness from the puree contrasting with the bitter chard slightly spoilt the delicate fish. As we hoped, things picked up for dessert where we fought over a deconstructed crumble of (here we go!) tender stems of rhubarb, buttermilk sorbet, white chocolate, tangy rhubarb jam, toasted marshmallow, and mint emulsion. I’m no dessert eater. I’m no rhubarb fan. But each component was perfectly matched and a real pleasure to eat. Next time I’m having my own.
Mendes clearly understands that eating out can, and should, be fun. Put simply, his cooking is thought-provoking and smile-inducing – not only that, it’s so affordable that a glitch with a dish here or there is easily overlooked. If only I was local…
Corner Room, Patriot Square, Bethnal Green
16th August 2012, £99 for two (with service)
Food: 8, Service: 8, Ambience: 9