A tasting menu full of surprises from the brand new occupants of the Town Hall Hotel – 8.5/10
Like many foodies across London, I was sad to read in June 2018 that Lee Westcott had decided to close The Typing Room, which used to occupy the main restaurant space at the Town Hall Hotel and which some thought had been edging towards a Michelin star. After shutting up shop in London, he has just opened his new guesthouse venture, Pensons, way out in the Herefordshire countryside. The initial reports suggested that the hotel space would be re-purposed, but I’m glad that the restaurant gods changed their minds: I think Da Terra could be even better.
I usually already know something about the restaurants I visit – either from a review, from friends or from Instagram. Da Terra is an exception. I only read about it for the first time a few weeks ago and am almost the first to review it (pipped by Fay Maschler by a matter of hours). It is the new London venture of Paulo Airaudo (of Amelia in San Sebastián) and Rafael Cagali, who runs the kitchen day-to-day and whose previous experience includes (deep breath): Martín Berasategui, Quique Dacosta, The Fat Duck, Fera and, most recently, as Head Chef at Simon Rogan’s eight-seater, Aulis. There is clearly some serious pedigree in the kitchen.
The menu at Da Terra is a blind tasting menu, meaning every dish is a complete surprise (perhaps a nod to Simon Rogan, who did a similar thing at Roganic). The only choice you need to make is whether you are an 8 out of 10 or an 11 out of 10 on the hunger scale. I love surprises and eat almost any animal, vegetable or mineral, but it may not suit those of you who are picky eaters or like to know what you’re eating in advance. The wine list is mix of French/Italian, with a number of interesting organic wines.
As it’s mid-week and I’m supposed to be January dieting (ha ha), we choose the 8-course option and sit expectantly, curiously wondering what will happen next. The room is a cool grey, sparsely populated with wooden tables and dominated on one side by the open kitchen. Considering it is only their second full night of service, the young team is remarkably calm and relaxed, each quietly focused on their tasks as Rafael and his sous-chef plate up on the counter and personally serve each dish to guests. Steel cutlery like surgical tools presages the precision of the dishes to come.
The first mystery dish arrives: a rose of thinly-sliced beetroot topped with chunks of barbecued sardine, dill stalks and fat, lustrous pearls of salmon roe. A slightly tart crème fraîche sauce offsets the earthy sweetness of the beetroot, with an occasional interruption from a little pop of salty roe. It’s served warm, but we are divided on whether it would be better cold.
In my opinion, raw scallop is one of the greatest ingredients in the world and I will always order it if I see it on a menu. Da Terra’s is delightfully fresh, served in small, meaty slivers in its own shell with apple marbles and a citrus sauce (perhaps yuzu) that has gently cured the scallop. A couple of leaves of sea fennel help season with a peppery aftertaste.
Next, a rustic hunk of sourdough bread with whipped salted butter, refreshingly served as a third course to be enjoyed rather than as an appetiser to be gobbled in ravenous hunger. We scoop out wobbly bits of marrow and spread it across the bread. It’s rich, nutty and deeply satisfying. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help comparing the butter to the amazing Marmite-infused butter they used to serve at The Typing Room. Da Terra’s is simpler, but not quite as moreish.
Hiding underneath its own crisped skin, a gently poached cod fillet falls apart into buttery pieces at the touch of a fork. Delicately grilled cabbage leaves with charred edges are folded over each other and make the perfect tool for mopping up the beurre blanc. Again, a little hint of sea air wafts across the plate from sprigs of sea fennel.
Accompanying the cod are a nest of crispy potatoes: grated into shoestrings, cleverly wrapped into a ball and deep-fried, they are topped with puréed cod’s roe, a generous shaving of black truffle and a couple of purple bellflowers. Earthy, salty and dangerously delicious, they disappear in a single bite. I would be very happy with just a big pile of them.
A square slab of tender braised beef shin arrives topped with some miniature enoki mushrooms. The beef is a little dry but better when accompanied by nutty artichoke gravel and fronds of chard.
The first of the desserts is fantastically clever and surprising: a variation of crème caramel made with goat’s cheese and sweet potato caramel. The first bite is confusingly both sweet and slightly musky and I am unconvinced, but somehow, as it melts against the roof of the mouth, the flavour slowly develops and lengthens into a beautiful, warm cuddle of richness. It’s magical and probably the highlight of the meal.
It was followed by a very curious dessert that I did not particularly enjoy, but one of my dining companions did: Jerusalem artichoke with white chocolate and a streak of sweet balsamic vinegar. Jerusalem artichoke is not actually a member of the artichoke family. Surprisingly, it comes from the sunflower family; the name “Jerusalem” probably came from a corruption of the Italian word “girasole” (sunflower). Its other name, “topinambur“, likely comes from the Tupinambá tribe in South America. For the curious among you, there is a very interesting etymological history of the word on Chez Gram.
Finally, a trio of petit fours. We debate the best order to eat them in – surely always chocolate last… Candied fruit jelly and a sharp lemon tart are both good, though the pastry is quite dense and cold. One final chomp of a sugar-dusted chocolate doughnut and our meal sadly comes to an end.
Choosing only to serve a blind tasting menu is incredibly ambitious for a brand new restaurant way out in Bethnal Green, which is unlikely to benefit from the kind of footfall of Mayfair or Soho. As we leave Da Terra, we chat about how unusual it is to finish a tasting menu feeling genuinely satisfied, rather than uncomfortably stuffed. It’s an immensely pleasant feeling and a testament to the skill, judgment and care of the kitchen. I fully intend to go back in a couple of months to see how Rafael and his team have settled in and whether there are any exciting additions to the menu. Who knows, with food like this in week one, maybe it could edge its own way towards a Michelin star one day.
The tasting menus are £65 (8 courses) and £90 (11 courses). I managed to get a copy of the menu after our dinner and the extra three dishes all look more meat-based, so I will brave the longer menu next time.
A Moveable Feast