- Food & Drink
In London’s grimly trendy East End there’s barely a shabby chic living room that hasn’t been filled with behatted and tight-trousered diners, eager to experience the illicit thrill of eating in a secret restaurant. The inverse ostentation of being in the know but keeping the details quiet made underground restaurants the perfect place for a bit of social one-upmanship in a recession-ridden London. Presumably in the gloom of 2010 we’ll be gathering on dark street corners for pop-up soup kitchens and clandestine burger vans.
By rights, underground restaurants should be terrible, an evening of Come Dine With Me bought mercilessly to life. But my first secret restaurant – The Hidden Tearoom – was great and there’s a chance that, in real life, it’s the people who are actually good at cooking that set up restaurants in their homes. A week ago Leonard, The Enigmatic Mr S, Mr B, DJ, Mr R and I gathered to have an urban family Christmas at Fernandez & Leluu, an underground restaurant run by a couple with a reassuringly long section about food hygiene on their blog.
We’d been asked to arrive between 7.15–7.45pm for dinner at 8pm. About 27 people were sat round tables in the living room, occasionally getting up and squeezing past each other to fetch the wine they’d stowed in the garden. Fernandez was in the kitchen, Leluu (Uyen) was hosting and we were getting drunk.
At 8.30/45ish Leluu brought round the first dish, a selection of warm breads and a brilliant beetroot dip. Beetroot recipes often emphasise the savoury, earthy flavours, but this dip brought out the vegetable’s sweetness with some subtle sweet spicing. A chunk of country terrine came alongside the breads. Meaty, with a metallic liverish tang, it was delicious but an unnecessary addition to the plate.
The second dish was fried udon noodles with chillies and Argentinean fillet steak. The steak was perfectly cooked and collapsed richly and bloodily in my mouth. I regularly forget how good steak is and then a slice or two of rare fillet cooked by someone paying attention brings me back to my senses. Udon noodles are my favourite, so I was always going to be inclined to like them, and they came with a good dosing of chilli. One of the best dishes of the night.
The steak was followed by cauliflower and parsnip soup with blue cheese. Served in a cup, I knocked this back as a soothing tonic to my chillified mouth. Little nuggets of blue cheese kept it interesting but I remember this mostly for the smooth texture.
And still there were more courses. A plate of Russian salad was remarkable for convincing me that Russian salad isn’t evil. Before I’ve suffered mouthfuls of mayonnaisey slop in tapas bars, but this was more like a rugged mashed potato with mayo stirred through, topped with slithers of Serrano ham and quail’s eggs.
The final savoury course was meatballs in cider served with an apple, cheese and radish salad. The meatballs were juicy and well cooked while the salad did its job as a refreshing side dish, although I’d have preferred it without the chunks of cheese.
For pudding, we had flaky slabs of croissant and butter pudding with whisky and white chocolate. Lighter than the standard, stomach-sinking bread and butter pudding, this was a sweet and substantial end to a wonderful meal.
Eating with Fernandez & Leluu is like attending a friend’s particularly good dinner party. The one where everything tastes great, you don’t feel guilty about not offering to help with the washing up and your host magics up a bargain cab in the middle of the night to take you home, sozzled and replete and looking forward to the next get-together.