WLC’s resident sybarite, Lucy Shaw, heads to the newly Michelin-starred Da Terra at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green for a five-hour feast full of surprises.
The concept: Meaning ‘from the earth’ in Italian, Da Terra at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green sees the coming together of two impressive culinary minds: Paulo Airaudo and Rafael Cagali, both of whom have Italian roots.
Argentine Airaudo runs the Michelin-starred Amelia in San Sebastian, which recently featured in Jason Atherton’s BBC 2 prog, The Chef’s Brigade. Housed in an old timber shop, Amelia’s pared down décor mirrors Airaudo’s minimalist new Nordic approach to his dishes.
Brasil-born, London-based Cagali meanwhile, most recently worked for Simon Rogan heading up his chef’s table concept Aulis in Soho. He met Airaudo while working at The Fat Duck, so the pair’s fine dining pedigree is of the highest level.
Their new venture, Da Terra, which opened modestly in March and scooped its first Michelin star this week, focuses on “Latin American flavours with an Italian heart”, largely crafted from locally sourced seasonal ingredients.
The décor: The space has been home to two exemplary restaurants. The first, Nuno Mendes’s Viajante, opened in 2010 and was succeeded in 2014 by Lee Westcott’s The Typing Room. The open kitchen from both ventures remains and forms the focal point of the room, which is split into a front and back section via a pair of arches.
The room is 50 shades of grey (in the colour rather than the sadomasochistic sense). Both the walls and chairs are grey. The only flashes of colour are from a series of paintings Cagali commissioned for the room. The space is monastic in its simplicity, allowing the food to be the focus.
It’s rather stark but the atmosphere is anything but – the staff are wonderfully jovial and the ’80s soundtrack nostalgic and fun. While Cagali and Airaudo couldn’t be more serious about their food, they want their diners to kick back and enjoy the experience rather than worship at the alter of fine dining.
The food: In a bold, perhaps brazen move, diners aren’t aware of what they’ll be eating until they turn up. The menu isn’t available online and guests are only asked about their dietary requirements beforehand.
This will delight or frustrate you, depending on how you like to dine. There are two tasting menus, a shorter one priced at £73, and a longer menu costing £90. We went for the latter, which took us on a fascinating culinary journey, but it’s not for the time poor – we arrived at 7pm and left at midnight.
Part of what makes Da Terra so enjoyable is that throughout the night you get to know Cagali and his team, as they each come forward to serve different dishes and tell the stories behind them.
The presentation of the dishes is pitched perfectly, with just the right amount of information given about the ingredients within and processes behind them to heighten your appreciation of them without being bogged down by complex cheffy techniques.
Signature dishes: There are too many dishes on the tasting menu to go into them in great detail, but among the highlights of the current menu is the opening dish, which paired Isle of Mull scallops with smoked fennel and pickled granny smith. Incredibly delicate and fresh, daubs of dill oil added depth to its clean green flavours.
Another standout is ‘the chicken’, a dish of two parts. The first is a heavenly chicken liver parfait served, Ollie Dabbous style, inside a pale blue egg on a bed of hay. Fluffy as a cloud and intensely rich, it was among the best parfaits I’ve had the pleasure of eating.
The second part of the dish features an egg yolk and chicken leg hidden under a roof of chicken skin, served with a bold onion jus in a confident and clever celebration of savoury flavours.
Bone marrow lovers will go wild for the bread interlude in the middle of the meal. The sourdough we were served was so tiny and daintily scored, it looked like it belonged in a dolls house.
It came with homemade salted and pink peppercorn butter and a generous hunk of bone with a spoon to scoop out the rich, oily marrow. Rather than a wine, our sommelier paired the dish with Toast Ale from Hackney, which makes its brews from leftover bread.
My favourite dish of the night married Cornish mussels with pickled green and yellow courgettes, lemon balm and almonds, which, with its crunchy textures and lemon lift, was quietly delicious and deeply joyful.
Of the desserts, the standout is the Romeo & Juliette, formed of a Tymsboro cheese mousse from Neal’s Yard Dairy topped with guava jelly and served with paper-thin linseed crackers. Like any good pairing, the saltiness of the cheese was balanced out by the sweetness of the guava.
The drinks: Perhaps the best way to experience the tasting menu at Da Terra is with the accompanying wine pairings, which cost £55 for the shorter menu and £83 for the longer one. Rather than sticking doggedly to wine, the pairing experience includes a Hackney ale and a bready saké made from brown rice, proving wine isn’t always the best pairing for food.
Among the most interesting wines we were poured were an apricot-laced Silvaner from the Rheinhessen and a creamy oak-aged Chardonnay from Bodegas Vegalfaro in Valencia. On the bottle front, wines start at £35 and quickly speed up.
Who to know: You’re likely to see Rafael Cagali on your visit. If he has time, it’s worth talking to him about the inspiration behind his dishes. Having worked for big names like Heston Blumenthal and Simon Rogan, Cagali is relishing having his own venture and being free to create exactly the kind of dishes he wants to cook.
What could be done better: Da Terra is an old school tasting menu experience you need to take your time over, so block out your diary on the day of your visit. There is little to fault with the cooking – the level of technical flair is impressive, as is the exquisite presentation of each dish and the stories behind them.
The only slightly strange element to the evening was the fact that we practically had the restaurant to ourselves, sharing the space with just one other table, but its Michelin star this week should soon change its fortunes.
Last word: Having opened very quietly in March, Da Terra should (and hopefully soon will) be a name on foodies’ lips as it is easily one of the most exciting and accomplished openings in London this year.
The experience isn’t cheap, so will be more for special occasion splash-outs than midweek meals, but those who go will be richly rewarded with thought-provoking, elegantly presented, unashamedly delicious dishes.
Da Terra, Town Hall Hotel, 8 Patriot Square, London, E2 9NF; Tel: +44 (0)20 7062 2052