Monday, 10 November 2014

Restaurant review: Rotorino, Dalston

September and October saw birthday season in full swing, and as per usual this meant some good eating. After a summer largely spent cooking at home, it was time to make some bookings and try out places that we had long had on our lists. We had a random, yet delicious Masterchef dinner at their Southbank pop-up, experienced true pea-souper London amidst the skyscrapers (so we’re told) at Duck and Waffle and perched in sardine-tin Jose in Bermondsey to relive our Spanish explorings from earlier in the year. I often make note to slip a camera into my pocket for such visits, but on many of our recent ventures my forgetfulness got the better of me. All for the better though, as I do cringe at the blunt pauses caused by clicking away as soon as the bottom of the plate meets the table. The only recent time that the trusty camera got its calling was for a highly-anticipated visit to Rotorino in Dalston. 

This is the sort of restaurant that attracts me like a bee to honey, and ever since it opened earlier this year I’d been yearning to make a booking. The fantastic Trullo is on my doorstep, but like that Highbury institution, Rotorino appeared to have it nailed with a multi-course menu that instantly generated a smile to read. The photos had me salivating. It all looked and sounded proper. It’s no massive secret that I am shamefully obsessed with Italian cooking, so there was certainly room enough for another good restaurant in the area. I just love the food culture; what could be better than endless plates accompanied by good wine. Real celebration food. Total gorging food. Something on bread, something with cheese, something tossed in pasta, something charred and grilled, something sweet and finally something to perk you back up from the mountain of consumption. Heaven.
It was three days after my birthday at the time of our arrival. The standard hangover had passed, and the glorious September warmth still clung on. Beer gardens thronged as everyone desperately tried to bask in what could be the last hour of summer. The evening haziness still hung in the air. It was almost like a holiday. It’s been over four years since those trains took us through weeks of Tuscan sunsets and I miss it dearly. Any opportunity to release those old memories and I’m there. 

Rotorino shone like a jewel on the otherwise nondescript strip between Dalston and Haggerston. Quite literally. The new jazzy sign lit red what had been quite a subtle, almost secretive entrance. Inside it was all dim lighting, and a smart collage of wood, glass and tile. At our table we sipped a delicious Chianti and picked on bread. It was early and we were almost an island in the middle of a patchily acquainted seating area, but it still felt comfortable and in no way isolating; something difficult to pull off. A note on the bread; although hardly a revolutionary concept, it does surprise me how infrequently it is offered these days. It always seems to work wonders at taking the edge off those potentially awkward early moments, giving the diner something to occupy themselves with while they wait to be served, and the waiting staff a couple of extra precious minutes. And in this case, those old chalky dinner rolls had been swept aside for something a little more interesting that were almost another course in their own right.
We ordered big, loosened a few belt buckles and awaited a feast. That point in a meal is always glorious. You have waited and anticipated for your booking, laboured over the menu, contemplated time-over if it would be acceptable to order two main courses before finally commiting, and then you are just sat there knowing that you are just a touching distance away. 

The joy of Italian cookery is the emphasis on good quality ingredients, often very simply combined and presented. The plate of plump buffalo mozzarella, juicy figs, chilli and good olive oil was a real case of why didn’t I think of that. This is a dish that just wouldn’t really work if the cheese was bouncy, the figs were tough and the oil cheap, but here the procurement shone through and everything balanced beautifully. Likewise, the gnudi that Katie was served for the following course was something that she described as one of the best things she had eaten in a long time. The melt-in-the-mouth ricotta combined with a blanket of cheesy, buttery mushroom was just stunning. Ricotta also starred in my main, niftily tucked under the skin of a chicken and then roasted on bread. I never order chicken when eating out but this was a game changer. Truly inspired.
The problem was that with the brilliance of these dishes, you wanted it repeated across everything else, which sadly it wasn’t. The beef in both tartar and hanger steak form managed to taste of very little, something probably easily rectified with a bit of seasoning in the kitchen or had it been available on the table. Similarly the pasta that read so well, all anchovy and breadcrumb, was severely lacking on both parts when it arrived on the table. It was like a few blobs of this sauce had been added as an afterthought, barely touching most of the long naked rigatoni stretched across the bowl. 

I love a simple ice cream to finish a big meal, but the scoops of mascarpone and lemon balanced awkwardly in the sad citrus shell and in taste. It just didn’t seem quite right. Katie was equally disappointed with her tart, which seemed to have been made a long time ago and left to go dry and crusty. It came with some sort of cream that had been pebbledashed alongside and left a clay-like feeling in the mouth. We were hoping for some respite with a coffee but it came seriously burnt.

It’s funny how the end of the meal is often the most memorable, that time when you feel the warmth of full-stomached satisfaction or when you start to get irritated by the time lapse in the bill arriving. Despite some brilliant plates of food, we left slightly deflated. Compared to other similarly-ranged ventures such as the aforementioned Trullo or Polpetto in town, where each dish had us scraping the porcelain for that last morsel, at Rotorino some of the things we ate seemed lacking in care. Fundamentally I’m a greedy eater and I never leave food on a plate, but here great chunks remained. For the fairly serious money it totted up to, I don’t think it’s enough for just one in every two or three dishes to be up to it. Had I sat there another time and just ordered the mozzarella, the gnudi, the chicken and finished there this review would be the total opposite, a winner. There is clearly good food being made, and most of what we ordered could have been great on another day. So I am cautious with my conclusion at this point, and I look forward to returning. If not just for another bite of that chicken-soaked bread.

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