- Food & Drink
“There’s a guy at work who makes amazing food and is doing a pop-up. Can you come and then tell everyone about it?” As far as requests go, this one is flattering, puzzling and carries a faint whiff of danger. Friend’s recommendations aren’t always to be trusted.
I get emails from friends all the time asking where they should eat in Covent Garden, or for a restaurant with a real fire, or with a table big enough for 20. I think carefully, send over a list of suggestions and then watch as they go to somewhere completely different for dinner. I’m beginning to suspect people get in touch to get a list of places to avoid. I’m starting to wonder about my taste.
One person whose recommendations I do trust is Jo. I ate my first oysters with her, went for my first Sichuan meal with her, and many years ago sat in a pub reading the menu she’d brought back from a little restaurant in Copenhagen that she thought was the best in the world. It was Noma, and the best in the world is exactly what it grew up to be.
It was Jo who organised dinner at ONA, a Chilean supper club with temporary residence in Trafalgar Square (soon to be moving to Kentish Town). Named after the Ona people, who were indigenous to Patagonia, ONA is run by chef Marcelo Henriquez and his partner Emily. It is one of the few places in London where you can try Chilean food; the other being Rica Rica, the street food cafe that ONA takes over on a Saturday night.
There was a nominal black and white dress code for the evening, based on the black and white stripes the Ona painted themselves with. Remarkably, most people had obeyed the code, so the cocktail drinking crowd looked, on arrival, like a cross between a funeral and a waiters convention. We milled in the belly of the cafe, drinking Torremotos. The name translates as earthquakes and the cocktail comes from Santiago, where it’s served in generous measures that mean you stagger around after drinking one as if the floor is shaking beneath your feet.
Not quite so lethal in London, these were a mix of sweet wine and prosecco with a scoop of pineapple and pisco sorbet and a very lickable chilli salt rim. We ate warm, flaky empanadas alongside them while we waited for the rest of the diners to arrive. I’d forgotten that at supper clubs we eat as one. Eventually the last straggler made it through the door and we repaired to the benches in the back of the cafe, where the gloaming was lit by a projector showing photos of the Ona before the Europeans arrived and spoilt it all.
Warm puffs of bread split and topped with salsa started the meal. Followed by my favourite dish of the evening: ceviche. The freshest muddle of fish, citrus, onions, tomatoes and avocados, there was a flavour that lingered warmly with every mouthful. We spent a long time debating what it could be, initially thinking that it was ginger and then deciding that was too simple, and it must be, at the very least, galangal, if not lemon grass. We asked Marcelo at the end of the evening what it as. “Ginger.”
The main course was where the French influence on Marcelo’s cooking showed most. A chunk of beautiful slow cooked beef rib cap came glazed with a jus so rich and shiny it turned the plate into a gravy skating rink. This was thick, heavy saucing that is Paris to the very last drop. I find this style of cooking increasingly hard going, although I understand the appeal of doing it: distilling the essence of the animal, of the flavours on the plate, into one slick ripple. But it’s overwhelming to eat, and when the beef is as mooingly elemental as this chunk was, it feels like overstatement.
The acidic confit tomatoes went some way to balancing out the richness, along with braised carrots and a slice of pastelera de choclo a la albahaca, which is translated variously as corn pudding or pie. It was a creamy slice of baked corn with a gentle blandness that gave the beef something soothing to rest against.
Marcelo had told us we would be surprised by the dessert, described as barley and peach on the menu. It was his riff on mote con huesillos, a Chilean summer drink-cum-sweet made with dried peaches cooked in syrup and a sunken layer of wheat. Marcelo’s version was a bells and whistles mix of baked peach, peach ice cream, barley ice cream, barley sponge, a scattering of puffed barley grains and a swirl of caramel. It was dazzling stuff, the firework end to a meal that began with the simplest of dishes and moved skillfully through increasingly technical cooking to a fine dining finale.
You can follow ONA on Twitter here, Facebook here, and book tickets for their supper clubs here. Tickets are £39 per person and include a welcome drink and canapé, starter, main, pudding and coffee and biscuits afterwards. I ate my meal as a guest of ONA.