La Cabina wouldn’t have to be great for there to be some serious hype around its opening on the Haggerston stretch of Kingsland Road. My guest doesn’t get it, because Matthew lives in Brixton and knows not this part of the world. To him East London’s a churning sea of late-night restaurants and 24-hr cocktails and DJ marathons.
It’s not true though, or not true enough. Late-night licences in Hackney are gold dust. Even midnight licences are thin on the ground, thanks to Hackney Council’s oddly puritanical take on What the People Need. That La Cabina’s open for subterranean cocktails until 5 in the morning’s already great news. That they also serve food until 5am, on a patch where post-midnight food options are slim, makes it the stuff of folklore and myth. If the food’s not actively poisonous and the music’s not actively Jewel, then everybody’ll love it. This is what the People Really Need.
Entrance to La Cabina’s through a solid metal door, with a payphone bolted to the front of it. Dial the right code and the door auto-unlocks, onto a long flight of stairs down and a sudden wash of noise. It’s unnecessarily complicated and kind of pretentious. But all the jabbing at the phone and the industrial door swishing open does feels like being on the Crystal Maze, which is maybe the best thing you can get from any restaurant experience ever.
Inside’s less neon than the outside, candlelit and ramshackle. There’s a tiny bar at one end and space for 50 covers. The menu’s short to start with, and it’s cut back late-night to a few basics. If you need the churros – and it’s winter, probably everybody needs the churros – then you’ve got to slide in before 11pm and do this back-to-front, starting with doughnut-sticks and a tumbler of melted dark chocolate and ending up with a plate of cured meats or a chicken shish.
The cocktail list’s weird in a way that pays off massively sometimes. Matthew’s got mixed feelings about the Santa Isabel – rum, sage, bacon jam, apples, lemons, maple syrup and paprika – that makes for a good starter but a confusing, pancake-ish cocktail. The La Cabina Martinez – bay leaf-infused gin, dry fino sherry and citrus bitters – is less confusing, and a brilliant Vesper-ish twist on the classic. The kind of drink that could reconcile you to the way sherry’s started turning up more and more on cocktail menus, pretending not to be a terrible drink.
Where the cocktails are ornate, the tapas plates are simple and way more substantial than we’re expecting. And there’s no hit-or-miss with the food, it’s all incredible. We order half the menu assuming it’ll all be dainty and the size of a saucer, and that we’ll need twenty of everything to soak up the Isabel and Martinez. But the octopus, new potatoes and Mojo Picon – a heavy-garlic green sauce – could be a bar snack for a few people, or a decent inroad into a full dinner for two. Two separate sources have warned us the Guinness-rarebit’s disappointing which seems impossible – Guinness, cheese, toast: what unholy thing can you do to turn that into a disappointment? – and we skirt it. The slow-cooked pork belly’s everything you want from Sevillian pulled meat, along with all the apple sauce and crackling you want from a Sunday roast. The grilled mackerel with almond dressing’s oily, crunchy and unbelievably rich, so hopefully that’ll be absorbed into the late-night menu at some point. It’d be a civic service to lure punters into La Cabina in the small hours of a drunken night and feed them hot, crispy fish and practically-food cocktails until they’re human enough to send back out, into the Haggerston dawn.
La Cabina, 232, Kingsland Road, E2 8AX. Website.