To say it Shadow occupying insignificant premises would be a staggering understatement. It overlooks a canal, which may be delightful in Venice but brings little joy in Hackney. It redesigned retail premises, designed in the 1970s without apparent effort, that fell into what you might describe charity as scurrilous desuetude. There is a terrace that should buzz on a pleasant summer evening, but in winter the only tectonic advantage is to protect you from a view of the A107 with its wall of plastic sheets.
Inside, they set up a restaurant, much like you might set up a forward-looking operating base. But, dear God, they bring out food that will make you cry.
Historians have clearly failed to isolate the moment Mortadella became so bloody cool. I mean, for years it was the ugly orphan of the charcuterie board; limp, pork-stained lunch meat, ignored by everyone but the most avid salumists and then suddenly, scared, you can not move east of the Inns of Court for artificial tubing. Do not get me wrong. This hertoe property is a good, good thing. Ombra’s wild boar mortadella is at least a minor miracle, and rolled up on a gnocco fritto – a cabbage brush, somewhere between an impossibly light fried pitta and a bread pom pou soufflé – it’s enough to make a formal decree of beatification to support, if not real holiness.
Cacio & Pepe Gougère, to be cruelly honest, did not reach its potential. The little choux bombs were good, but a sprinkle of grated cheese and black pepper is not enough. C&P is not about the cheese or the pepper, it’s about their scandalous association in comforting lipid glop, that’s exactly what I want my gougers to be pumped full of. Serving them next to the gnocco was the kind of mistake you make when you double date with your richer, resourceful and prettier friend.
When I’m World King, I think I might be able to get rid of burrata. It’s too easy to roughly tear apart, drip with oil and call for an appetizer. Fortunately, at Shadow, they do not either. The brave unshaven ball of cheese nestles in the roundness of a roasted wedge of sweet pumpkin, soaked in a pool of the same made into a huge puree, then topped with crispy sage and crumbled Amaretti biscuits. It is a well-proven combination of flavors, so it is to their credit that they deliver it successfully and so memorable.
A whole roasted Roman artichoke has the look and texture of oily potpourri, but it tastes sensational. There’s another steamy, sweet heart in it, but to get to it, you’re willingly chopping through half a bowl of fibrous chips. . . in a good way. It’s one of those dishes that does not need complicated dressing at all. The way the caramelization and bitterness sit alongside the creamy and still subtly fragrant core burns more synapses of joy than any sauce can.
The day I am not attracted to raw meat on a menu, I suggest you take me out of the trash and round me up with a few rounds to the brain stem, but raw lamb is a challenge. Lebanese kibbeh nee against the lanolin fat of the mince with garlic, onion and spices, but here it is simply served, the better to mix with a strong tuna mayo – basically tonnato sauce. It’s not a combination I’ve met before, but it’s inspired. Do you know how anchovies somehow improve barely fried lamb? Yes. That. Up to the power of 10. Served with pear and puntarelle, it is my earliest contender for “it’s of the year”.
Dessert was a tiramisu, sublime and light, with a stimulating hit of espresso, lots of chocolate depth and as much perceptible drink as a 12-step meeting. I’m not sure how that is possible. Parsimony was certainly not characteristic of anything else on the menu. Maybe it’s a Dry January thing. Anyway, I managed to drown my disappointment in pears and taleggio, which at least preaches his asceticism beforehand.
The strange layout of Ombra puts the kitchen halfway up the back wall, like a Royal Box. You can almost feel how the chef watches everything from above and controls proceedings. If this is how he choreographs such an excellent experience, then it seems to me a very good thing.
Ombra Kroeg & Restaurant
Vynerstraat 1, London E2 9DG; 020 8981 5150; ebrabar.restaurant
Snacks and entrees: £ 2.30- £ 11
Main network: £ 11- £ 28
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