Canela in Covent Garden
Fans of the Covent Garden’s Canela cafe need not worry about its much heralded reinvention: it’s less of a fresh start than it is an evolution. The core components that first drew praise – the adventurous food, the quality ingredients, the excellent service – are still here behind a shiny new paint job. The walls have been panelled deep blue, the wooden chairs replaced with buttery leather and Portuguese marble tables now line a dark and sophisticated bar space. The entire area does well to get that wine bar chic without veering towards pretentious. The general ambience remains as pleasant and relaxed as ever.
There are some noticeable and rather welcome additions however. The excellent wine list, which is full of Portuguese gems, speaks of a restaurant with definite ambition. We had a bottle of the 2012 “Pousio”, competitively priced at £24. Smooth, soft and a little fruity, it made for smooth drinking and perfectly complemented the rich fattiness of the chorizo that began our meal.
The first of said dishes was intriguingly described as a Squid Boat. It turned out to be a plump slice of unctuous white meat, stuffed to the brim with chorizo, peppers and tomatoes. The squid was perfectly cooked but lacked real flavour, and rather alarmingly, so did the chorizo. Bizarrely, the mild sweetness of peppers was allowed to dominate entirely. With caution we turned to the Chorizo Flambe, a simple dish consisting of two sliced and grilled chorizo sausages. The difference was astonishing. Rich, spicy and decisively meaty, it was a glowing endorsement for the dish some refer to as the king of charcuterie. It was also markedly bold in its execution, relying on nothing other than the quality of the product to deliver satisfaction to the client, which it most certainly did.
The first main, Bacalhau a Braz, shared that ideology. A simple dish, it consisted of shredded salt cod, onions, black olives and thinly sliced strands of potato, bound in lightly scrambled egg. Served in a tender cake, it was a true delight. The meltingly soft egg contrasted nicely with the slightly stiffer cod and potato, creating a dish that felt decidedly indulgent. Considering this is essentially gentrified peasant food, that’s no mean feat.
The second main was something we ordered purely because it sounded a little bizarre. A Beef Guisado, or stew, served with a poached egg, fine couscous and banana. It was that last ingredient that really caught our eye; after all, beef traditionally pairs well with strong, punchy flavours like horseradish and wine. The idea of a sweet, baked banana sitting beside a rich beef stew was one we simply had to try. The result was strangely endearing. The combination opens heavily with the strong sweetness of the banana, which oddly seemed to highlight the meaty saltiness of the beef, before fading back into a slightly sweet aftertaste. The egg was the real hero here; its creaminess tying the two seemingly disparate ingredients together into something that worked surprisingly well.
Dessert began with a Creme Caramel that was served Portuguese style, or so we were told. The syrupy top was honeyed and curiously soft, and the creme itself was yielding and oddly porous. It was good, but nothing special by any means; we couldn’t help but wish we had gone for the custard tarts instead. The final dish of the night came recommended to us by our charming waitress who insisted we try the Romeo and Juliet. Quince marmalade was served in a cute pyrex jar, topped with mascarpone. Like all the best things that we ate that evening, it was simple and homely, but none the worse for it. The tartness of the fruit was perfect with the rich cream cheese and our waitress beamed as we endeavoured to scoop out every last inch of it from the jar.
There’s a bravery to this new Canela. They’re determined to reach for the stars and they so nearly make it too. If a few dishes underwhelmed, they only really did so when set against the backdrop of what was generally a delightfully robust and flavoursome effort.
Photos: Elliot Neal
To book a table at Canela, Covent Garden, 33 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LS, call 020 7240 6926.