Oh dear East London there is no end to your gastronomic surprises. As I headed down to another culinary adventure on Kingsland Road I was somewhat apprehensive about what I was going to experience. As you know, Dalston is rammed full of new restaurants, bars, cafes and pop ups, and while a lot of the new arrivals are perfectly pleasant, I’ve had my share of disappointments in the area. Many lack authenticity or are just too concerned with looking cool, letting food take the back seat. Some often employ staff that look the part but don’t deliver the goods.
Not this place. As soon as I walked into Ivy’s Mess Hall there was this unaffected, relaxing atmosphere that put me at ease instantly. I was greeted by a member of staff who was so immediately attentive and charming that I didn’t even have time to have cynical thoughts about his very dalstonesque moustache! The dining room was small and the bar had a view of the kitchen, making the whole place function as a unit – restaurant staff, barmen and cooks sharing the same space, creating a familiar ambiance that makes you feel very comfortable. First impressions: check. Now to the food. I must warn you, I may use the word heavenly a few times here, for lack of appropriate synonyms. Many of the dishes come in tapas size portions, so my companion and I had a chance to try many of the chef’s highlights.
Cristina Leone, the head chef and one of two owners was kind enough to sit with us halfway through dinner and shared some great stories about her produce, her businesses and also her passion for what she does. Take my first dish, the Burrata salad for instance. Cristina says she’s always had a soft spot for Italian mozzarella, so much so that when she decided to have it on the menu, she embarked on a journey to Puglia, home of the best craft, hand-pulled Burrata in the whole of Italy. She visited 39 different producers – and tasted 39 different cheeses – until she found the perfect one. And the perfect one was served on a bed of wild tomatoes with an olive oil and balsamic dressing; as I cut through it, silky, creamy, white softness oozed out and I thought to myself, long live Puglia producers! “They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years.” She told us, “they are born into it and it’s a privilege to cook with their product”.
My companion started with the spicy chorizo stew, and the heat, unusually, radiated from the sausage rather than the sauce. It was a flavour bomb, with roasted garlic, rosemary, tomatoes and heat that packed a punch. Cristina buys her chorizo from a small community of women in Catalunia and she told us that she revels in the fact that no sausage looks the same, they are all individually hand made and she swears she can taste the love and care with which they are produced. These two dishes are the perfect example of the chef’s love of small, artisan producers and Mediterranean cooking.
Cristina is Brazilian with German, Spanish and Italian grandparents and defines her cuisine as modern Mediterranean with a strong Brazilian influence. Our next dish was the very Brazilian Moqueca, a fish stew cooked with palm oil and coconut milk. It is traditionally served with rice and Farofa, a side made from cassava flour. At Ivy’s the Moqueca comes with toasted ciabatta drizzled with olive oil, and although I’m a sucker for Farofa, I thought this Italian approach worked rather well. We also had pork sliders and you know what they say, all good things come in threes. They were three cute little buns enveloping the most heavenly, melt in the mouth, zesty, slow cooked pork. “It’s an old family recipe” Cristina told us. “Unfortunately my grandma passed before I had the chance to get the recipe, so I tried to recreate it from memory, testing, tasting and starting again, until I was happy with it.”
The wine list is small and uncomplicated and the staff are happy to recommend the perfect pairing for your food. The menu changes according to what is available at the vegetable and fish markets and to what the chef thinks should star on it that week. Rest assured that whatever it contains, it will be done very skilfully and carefully, making your experience, well, heavenly.
Ivy’s Mess Hall
129 Kingsland High Street,
020 7254 8006