None of the braintrust behind Rotorino, the Dolce-Vita-meets-Dalston venture from chef Stevie Parle, are exactly unknown quantities.
Food critics are perpetually being dazzled and annoyed by how young Parle is to have such an impressive list of credits – including Dock Kitchen and River Café – already behind him. Ruth Spivey’s been redefining the wine bar since 2013 with her roaming Wine Car Boot pop-up. And it might be marginally faster to list any wildly successful food or bar offerings in London that aren’t backed by Jonathan Downey, than the ones that are – Dinerama in Shoreditch Yard being one of the latter.
So if you’ve come across the Rotorino taskforce in any of their separate projects, this Italian collaboration should feel like familiar ground, surely.
What it feels like, though, is the first time you watch Avengers Assemble. Granted, these guys probably aren’t saving the world – although try the Sasso Chicken before you decide either way – but Rotorino’s arrival on Kingsland Road comes with the same sense of those standalones coming together in an enormous, cinematic crescendo.
There’s a long bar counter, with a long lower table to match, open only for walk-ins. And – though I have a vision of keeping this a beautiful and secret ménage à trois between me, a Roberto Burns cocktail and a plate of Rotorino antipasti – it should be noted that the bar’s recently started aperitivi afternoons, run from 3.30 to 5.30pm every Saturday and Sunday.
From there Rotorino spreads into a larger room at the back. Booths along the edge, tables filling the centre, warm lighting, checkered flooring, some brick walls, some blue-tiled walls. Leather in the booths, candles on the tables, tattoos on the waiters. It’s a perfect collision of E8 and Italianate. It’s also, I’m pretty certain, one of the most romantic restaurants in London – assuming your idea of romance isn’t one of chandeliers and starched tablecloths and escapism, but just a really great version of your normal life.
We start with cocktails and carta di musica – a wafer-brittle bread from Sardinia brushed with oil, rosemary and salt. Both are faultless, exactly what’s in order when you have to deliberate over a menu with not only First, Second, Third and Sweet sections, but then subsections to those as well. The Firsts alone are broken down into Cured, Cold, Fried and Grilled.
In defence of the menu, it’s not as harrowingly complex as it sounds. On some solid advice from our waitress we order First and Second dishes each, with one from the Third to share. But if you want to recreate what was either a brilliant series of choices on our part, or just a fairly standard path through a menu on which all choices are brilliant ones, I’d urge you towards the lamb sweetbreads, in thin, crispy shells of batter, served with fried artichokes and goat’s curd. The pistachio campanelle, slicked with a kind of cheeseless pesto, so fresh that it’s a near-radioactive green. The Sasso chicken, burnished with fat and salt, and so delicately treading the line between a hell of a lot and too much of both. And then the cannoli, with a surprise hit of fennel seed claiming my date’s heart forever.
Are there any off-notes? It’s hard to dredge up anything that matters. Sean Paul comes in over the speakers urging us to get busy at one point, which feels a bit out of keeping with the rest of the unhurried, hipster warmth. And the chickpea panelle we start with could do with something richer or sharper – or more powerful in any direction, really – to turn them from nice-enough into the same degree of knockout as the rest of the menu. So there you have it. Some fleeting, slightly incongruous dancehall-pop. And a starter which, though the least exciting part of this particular dinner is still crispy, light and warm enough to square up against the most exciting part of any number of other restaurant menus, and win.
The Parle/Downey/Spivey triumvirate have splintered off into side projects again: Parle to the much-lauded Craft London; Spivey to the summer season of Wine Car Boot, and Downey presumably to tell the people of London the exact thing they most want to eat now, and then give it to them.
That’s fine. The same thing happened at the end of Avengers. They can have their solo outings. Just as long as they keep on joining forces to protect us in our hour of greed.
Rotorino, 434 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA. To make a booking call 020 7249 9081 or visit the website.