Review: Café Cecilia, Hackney

Cafe Cecilia in Hackney exterior

Is fantastic food all that matters when we go to a restaurant? If so, good news: you only have to read the first half of this review of Café Cecilia, one of the most talked about new restaurants in London. You can use the time I’ve saved you to try to book a table. I wish you luck.

The reason people are talking about Café Cecilia is because chef Max Rocha is a graduate of some of the capital’s most loved restaurants in River Café, Spring and St John. Now he’s got his own spot in Hackney, a finger pinch down a Google map from London Fields, serving breakfast and lunch dishes worthy of these institutions.

It’s the starters where Rocha shows who he is as a chef, with plates that have you thinking back to old school Italian kitchens and forward to early heart disease.

The breaded mutton chop, which comes with an anchoiade and a superfluous knife and fork, is fatty and crispy, and because the mutton is a bit older, it has the kind of flavour you want to suck before you chew. I felt a little bereft when it was finished. This, along with the onglet, suggests Rocha has inherited the nose-to-tail philosophy that came to define St John.

The influence of River Café is also clear from the canal-side location and the false modesty of the name, though Rocha has mercifully rejected the concept of extortion. The fritti – an anchovy coved between two sage leaves and deep fried in a light batter – are a clever, salty treat for just a fiver, while nothing on the menu costs much more than £20.

The mains tend to be about one ingredient, served with a bowl of afterthought – chips or fried courgette. The onglet that everyone seemed to be ordering is cooked to a bright, even pink, sliced and layered across the entire plate with just a pepper sauce for company. A beautifully cooked fillet of trout gets similar treatment, though there’s depth in the simplicity: a tangy lemon mayonnaise and an aniseed hit to the puddle of oil in which the fish is served.

So yes, the food is fantastic, and if that’s all that matters when you eat in a restaurant, this is your reminder that you can stop reading now.

My problem is that, while the influence of Rocha’s CV is clear, Café Cecilia is yet to develop a personality of its own. Interactions with the staff are pleasant but unmemorable, the music had a similar effect as a mild bout of tinnitus, and while not every restaurant can be nestled inside Somerset House, the setting feels like a wasted opportunity. It is positioned on the ground floor of the kind of new build that used to be called a block of flats, and is now known as a development, and while it faces Regent’s Canal, what’s the point in being by the river if there’s no outdoor seating and the windows are, bizarrely, partially greyed out?

I would like it put on record that I’m the first writer to get this far into an article about Max Rocha – the final paragraph – without mentioning that he’s the son and brother of fashion designers John and Simone. It’s said that Rocha Sr helped design the place but other than an open kitchen that resembles a returns desk at Debenhams it has nothing to set it apart from a work canteen, or at least several other restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of months. Nothing memorable and nothing to make you want to come and make memories. Just another unrendered ceiling, another exposed aircon system, another whitewashed room lit with pendant lights. The food went down well but the decor was repeating on me. 7/10

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