Palatino, London – a review

You know that joke, ask an Italian where the best food is and they’ll tell you to eat at their grandmother’s? Well, that’s not entirely inaccurate. I have such ridiculously high standards when it comes to Italian food that I genuinely feel bad for every Italian restaurant I go to. If the food isn’t prepared the way my grandmother would or doesn’t taste as nice as that little restaurant I stumbled upon once in the Tuscan countryside ten years ago, I am pretty much guaranteed never to set foot in it again.

Cue to me entering an Italian restaurant, desperately trying to relax and enjoy my glass of wine; inside I am a ticking bomb nervously looking around for the first thing that will set me off. I see dill in pasta and I shudder. The balsamic on the pappardelle makes me teary. I don’t want to be that person but I am that person so I silently suffer at the sight of pesto on top of anything that isn’t pasta, or chicken on pizza.

It’s instilled in us from a young age, this fierce over-protectiveness of our food, the infinite rules of what it’s acceptable to eat, what goes with what, what dramatic consequences that splash of cream could bring into our life. We Italians live by a moral code that knows no logic but is stronger than any attempt to rationalise it.

I read a Giles Coren review last week, the first paragraphs of which were dedicated to insulting my messy, heartbreakingly beautiful, chaotic, ancient hometown: Rome. Traffic is terrible, he says (true); the people are grumpy (huh? Did he go to the post office?). The food inedible.

I’m not sure whether Coren has ever actually been to Rome, but it’s true that its food scene can be very hard to navigate. The millions of rip-off tourist trap restaurants with cookie-cutter decor, menus in seven languages and bland pastas served alongside overcooked burgers can truly be off-putting. And the ‘cool’ new places are also largely disappointing, offering overpriced fare that was innovative maybe ten years ago. Its protectiveness over its cuisine, the lack of receptiveness of different approaches to food has made the Roman restaurant food scene a little stale. I get that.

But food in Rome is somewhere else. It’s crispy, fried supplìs with their melty mozzarella heart, in a brown bag rendered translucent by oil, eaten in tiny cobblestoned alleyways, green vines climbing up earth-coloured walls. It’s squares of chewy pizza al taglio, the edges crispy, pockets of mozzarella atop delicate courgette flowers. It’s the 4-am flaky pastries and doughnuts from the bakeries that stay open all night, the tripe sandwich served in a knackered food truck by a bleak roundabout. It’s the carbonara you make with friends, while fighting over the recipe (you put egg whites in?). The long pizza tongues with a stripe of bright red sauce running through them. Neighbourhood osterias that sell wine by the litre with menus handwritten on a blackboard and paper tablecloths. Locals tucking into creamy fried brains, bitter greens, sweetbreads, fried artichokes. It’s the salumeria, cheese and cured meat shops, and the sandwiches they will prepare on the spot with the salame of your choice; the utter simplicity of crusty bread and marbled slices of coppa.

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So while Giles Coren’s review angered me, it also made me discover a Roman-cuisine restaurant in London, and I was eager to try. Palatino, apart from the slightly off-putting Ancient Roman font which makes me think of theme parks and the gladiators in front of the colosseum with their plastic helmets, sweat dripping in the sun, is a beautiful restaurant with some odd features; just round the corner from our industrial-chic area there were some steps with cushions to sit on, and at the very bottom, an office?

The menu looked quite attractive, with lots of Roman dishes (never thought I would see pajata -intestines of milk-fed calf- outside of Rome) and a few less Roman dishes (fried gnocchi -as a side- and the very Northern polenta). The starters were truly lovely: the creamiest, milkiest stracciatella on toast with a delicate anchovy, and light-as-air fried courgette flowers, the green, soft bloom complemented by some vinegar for dippage.

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Pastas were served in generous portions; we had the small size and it was no smaller than any other pasta serving I have ever had. Cacio e pepe, a simple dish of pasta with pecorino and pepper, was creamy and violently peppery but could have used more cheese, while the white ragù offered much more depth of flavour (still prefer my auntie’s, I muttered. I’m a nightmare). Saltimbocca alla romana, veal escalopes with prosciutto, were cooked beautifully, the meat soft but supple, but still lacked quite a lot of the aggressive savouriness and saltiness that characterises Roman cuisine (and the amount of prosciutto was rather stingy). Roman food is salty. Not too salty, just immensely satisfyingly salty. If it doesn’t leave you thirsty for the rest of the afternoon, you’ve done it wrong.

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IMG_9781Palatino is not, nor is it trying to be, the neighbourhood osterias I long for. It’s sophisticated, elegant, maybe a little toned down. But it’s beautiful Italian (Roman!) food nonetheless.

Palatino

71 Central St,

London EC1V 8AB

Instagram food fatigue

A good 80% of my Instagram feed is food. There are the odd bits of fashion, peaceful landscapes, beauty gurus showing off their freebies. I don’t really follow celebrities whose feed turns into publicity when a new film is out (but Dawn Porter is the best); any stranger who takes lots of pictures is an unwelcome addition in my feed because why would I be interested in a stream of unfamiliar faces?
I follow a few people who travel the world but not too many because the harsh office lights reflecting off the white plasticky desks are an especially bleak sight when compared to a picture of Birman temples. But food, food is accessible.

When I say food, I mean all kinds of food. The beautifully shot kind with artfully placed hands reaching for the central plate and flower petals scattered on the white linen; the mono-ingredient poetry of Noma chef René Redzepi, recipe ideas from the celebrity chefs, their pictures bright and sharp; the so-called “food influencers” with pseudo-pornographic shots of yolks oozing and fountains of cheese being slowly poured on a burger because clearly the London food scene knows no excess.
But I fear that after months –years– of endless mindless scrolling, I may be experiencing sort of Instagram food fatigue. It’s a thing. It happens.

Smoothies, smoothie bowls, perfectly round slices of bananas arranged in a semicircle, impossible-to-eat shakes that defy logic and probably laws of physics, burgers upon burgers upon burgers with shiny patties and melted cheese oozing out, avocados thinly slices and grilled and crushed and mashed and filled, orange-coloured eggs forever oozing onto sourdough, edible flowers, neatly arranged doughnuts, huge platters of sushi, coconut oil and cream and milk and water and sugar, bright green matcha items, #foodgoals, #foodporn, #foodisbae.

It seems that my relationship with food has been oddly shaped by a very limited number of trendy food items forever repeated and imprinted in my mind, half of which are unnecessarily #healthy and charged with cutesy pseudoscientific terminology like superfood, vitamin-packed, goodness, nasties. The rest are utter excess.

Food on social media seems to impart a double pressure: the one to try as many “cool” things as possible, and the one to be a conscious, healthy eater. And sometimes I am a victim of both.
But is this who I want to be? A maker of smoothies, a drinker of lukewarm lemon water, a calorie-counting kombucha-sipping consumer of kale and sweet potato, a self-righteous enemy of white foods by day; and by night, to keep up with the London food scene, the sort of person who gets bacon as a side and queues for a doughnut crossed with a croissant?

Lately, I have found myself getting home and just not wanting to think about food. Me. The person who daydreams about how to create egg yolk butter. The one who plans holidays around what to eat and spends hours researching how to best cook rice.

But this fatigue, the utter indifference I feel towards brightly coloured tacos served from a food truck in a converted toilet, makes me thing I need to take a break. I need some sort of beige-food diet. I find myself gravitating towards canned tomato soup. Broth made with a stock cube. Pasta with just butter. If you were to look at my Deliveroo history you would see that I’ve been ordering a lot from this Polish restaurant, its food almost exclusively beige, translucent, thick-skinned boiled pierogis that could not be any less photogenic, pork served with a hearty dose of mash, boiled cabbage, the sort that a grandmother would feed her family on a remote mountain somewhere. Food that feeds the heart rather than the camera.

So yeah, when a new Asian-fusion Mexican-inspired burger&chicken place opens in London, don’t mind me. I’ll be here eating my plain rice.

The Queen of Sheba, London

Most of my meals are eaten at my desk, straight from the Tupperware, its cover gently dipping in the middle, battered by too many runs in the microwave. Others are eaten cold from the fridge, the TV on, a book with yellowed pages in the other hand; many are gobbled down as quickly as possible, like my morning porridge, perched on a chair, staring at the clock with the same intensity of a film hero about to detonate a time bomb.
So the thought of making an occasion of food, of dedicating an hour or maybe two of my life to food, only food, is always appealing. And the thought of eating with my hands is even more thrilling.

Now, my previous experiences with Ethiopian food: not many. A stall at the Festa dell’Unità in Rome, where my friend Luca worked one summer. Bare legs, the smell of late summer, warmth and grass, sitting on a wooden bench. We flinched at some items on the menu – raw meat? Raw meat? This was before an endless stream of tartares impossibly dressed in all shades of mustards and salts and quickly mixed with sticky egg yolks, of course. A hearty beef stew eaten in a Styrofoam container, with a spoon.

Then, a small restaurant in Rome, a friendly, if a little invasive owner, plastic chairs and tables, plump lemons on the bizarre wax tablecloth. Sticky floor. The food brownish, creamy, served on a sort of sour pancake. The view on the main road, rubbish collecting at every corner, tired trams, worn down people, scrawny cats, layers upon layers of posters falling to pieces (because the Rome of my adolescence looks nothing like the warm-toned fantasy of ancient facades and cobble streets).

But there was something about that memory, even though a bittersweet one for some reason I can’t quite remember, that always left me wanting to go again. To eat stew with my hands (because yes, cutlery is banished in Ethiopian restaurants). There is something especially fine about stews when it’s cold outside, thick socks and gloves on, the wind biting, your breath forming a curious cloud whenever you speak. Stews are wholesome, good-natured, a blanket of meat and vegetables to warm you up to your core.

So on an impossibly beautiful late autumn day (London only gets so many beautiful autumn days…) we went to The Queen of Sheba to see how much of my memory was actually true.
We were greeted by soft lighting, soft music, friendly owners, couples and friends nursing pots of tea, colourful portraits of the Queen of Sheba herself, a nutty, sweet scent in the air that I could not quite make out (we’ll get to that later).

We choose three dishes: diced chicken, sautéed with onion and spinach; mince beef with Ethiopian butter and spices; a chickpea stew. They are delicately spooned over a huge, sponge-like, pillowy disk of injera, its slightly sour bite a blessing to cut through the butteriness of the dishes. We are also give some extra injera, rolled in a way that makes it look a lot like hot towels you get on an airplane – only delicious.

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There is something about tearing a piece of this flatbread and mopping up the sauces that feels convivial, and intimate, and simple. The silky chickpea stew, the quiet spice of vibrant chicken, and the louder, buttery spicy mince (my favourite) are slowly picked up from the disk of injure among laughter, conversation, smiles. You will end up brushing against the people you’re dining with, and you won’t look especially dignified, but it all makes it even more fun.

Ordering a pot of coffee is an experience in itself. They roast the beans in front of you, in a small pan, blackened by time, and give you a whiff of the enticing smell which is not dissimilar from roasted chestnuts; they then bring a pot to the table with small cups and cubes of brown sugar. The coffee is strong, silky, strangely calming, and will give you just enough energy to muster the courage to leave this oasis of spices and roasting coffee and go back into the cold.

The Queen of Sheba
http://www.thequeenofsheba.co.uk/
Kentish Town, London

 

 

 

As the soft lighting did not prove ideal to take pictures, I am leaving you with a couple of snapchat videos.