Allegra, The Stratford, 20 International Way, London E20 1FD
Allegra: It means joy and it means business
There’s something dream-like about The Stratford, almost sinister with its seductive, near-sordid use of subdued lighting. It has your eyes perpetually resting at half mast- induced into that fuzzy, warm, extreme pupil-dilation sort of mellowness that signals an impending uninterrupted, deep sleep. From this world, we’re transported to another, on the fourth floor to be exact, to Allegra (Italian for ‘joyful’ yet a conspicuously un-Italian otherwise) where we’re in for their taster menu, billed as ‘The Allegra Experience’. I love a taster menu, it’s a narrative; an intimate flow chart of the kitchen's mind and heart.
After a kombucha seltzer that’s on the right side of medicinal, it’s my beloved ‘snacks’ phase. A tartlet packed with a firm dice of mackerel, coated in a mustardy riata topped with chervil is first- prim, proper and almost because of this, prissy in contrast to what follows. Crisp little orbs of choux studded with pistachio and bulging with a chilled chicken liver parfait follow, topped with a pupil of black garlic and preserved mandarin. Then comes ‘blood pudding cheeseburger’ and I come over all tingly.
American cheese? On this menu. In this hotel? It’s verging on perverse and I love it, our table groaning under the sheer weight of the balls on this dish. A vinyl square of the ubiquitous Americana fuses a little English muffin to a little slice of blood pudding concealing pickled jalapeño. It’s trying to tempt me round the back of the bike sheds and like an absolute hornbag, I oblige.
The bread course consists of white sourdough, pillowy with a mellow tang but it’s the soda bread for me. Markedly sweeter than I’m used to, but I don’t care- with crisp edges it reminds me of that best part of a Jacobs Selection- ‘the Hovis Loaf’ aka a McVities Digestive reborn. Suffocated with butter, it’s pure nostalgia. An enigmatic ‘green sauce’ that’s neither chimichurri nor salsa verde is fresh with parsley and zipping with vinegar. It’s arguably an unconventional accompaniment but it doesn’t stop me from saving the KP a job as A Squeegee the ramekin clean with my pinky.
The celeriac velouté is positively pouting with the amount of butter that it’s stowing. Plenty of earthy sweetness captured in an ivory satin duvet that swaddles a fine dice of celeriac and thoroughly roasted hazelnut, topped with toasted yeast. A parmesan ‘cigar’ - cheese straws with a doctorate - accompany this, resulting in a feverish exchange of bites and scoops that reaches the end far too soon.
Roasted quail, beetroot & pecan mole, pickled bitter leaves have the Editor and I doing telekinetic backflips as our eyes meet gazing up from the menu. I’m particularly excited on her behalf, as I’ve known her for seventeen years and am just now finding out that she’s in fact, never had it.
Honestly, you think you know someone.
And things will stay that way, as they’re fresh out. We’re being ‘upgraded’ to pigeon. Times really are changing.
Sumptuously pink edge-to-edge, the breast is crusted with a scree of crushed pecans and draped with neat banners of braised radicchio, pooled in a sauce that is so full of body it could be Gacey’s crawl space. But it’s clearly all about the mole. Texturally, it takes me straight to one of my all-time favorite restaurants in Bristol, Wilson’s (no relation, stop asking, my DM’s are closed) the restaurant by which I measure all others. The mole is smoldering with the heat of chilli- quite daring in a dish of this fragility but absolutely pulls it off; so much so, we order more bread solely for mopping. Flanked with some outrageously crispy salt and pepper wings and sour cream dip, it's that enthralling blend of playfulness and authority- a sentiment echoed in every dish.
Spectacular with snowy iridescence is a piece of humble pollock, dotted with petals of sweet and sour onions appearing like rescued pages of a burnt book after triggering the sprinklers. A butter sauce split with herb oil and preserved lime is studded with the tight pop of salmon roe and surrounds a Pomme Darphin (the Dauphin of hash brown nobility) held in place by a slick dune of onion puree. It’s a great example of not only textures but makes a case for milder fish actually holding their own against stronger sauces, particularly in terms of acidity across several layers.
The venison course is Exhibit B in making the case for game cookery here, clearly performed with the utmost care and due diligence. It’s at the sort of level that leaves Gregg Wallace to parrot the opinions of his co-hosts because he’s already used the four words he knows. The parsnip has been rolled in toasted yeast and is honeyed and supple with butter, a slice of raw pear lays beside, completely billy-bollocks, which demonstrates a surefootedness that’s near brazen. The ‘pickled red cabbage’ has been given a bump of xanthan gum and whizzed into silk, faintly jingle-belling with winter spice it’s expertly placed to keep the flexing, sticky jus in check. The cottage pie is a pomme puree/aligot hand-on-the-thigh-under-the-table number turfed with chive and bacon crumb, stashing a pile of venison ragù porn under its bed.
A pre-dessert of ‘red-fleshed apple’ (maybe a Cordon 'Rosette') granita and vanilla yoghurt sorbet skates into our lives. It’s reminiscent of both a cherry brandy and a cider apple lolly that any ice cream van worth their Maxibon would stock in the 90s. The sorbet with its fat content is warm on the tongue and mellow with vanilla, making for a palate-cleanser that’s almost counter-intuitive as you just want a vat of it.
Next, a virgin rum baba near sodden with an ethereally herbaceous syrup. A fat ripple of cream studded with acidic pearls brings indulgent but somehow angelic balance- skirting the line between restraint and excess, just so.
The chocolate phase of the dessert procession eats like a Bueno that’s substituted wafer for sponge, abound with 60% cocoa chocolate which fortuitously, is my favourite. Slicked with caramel sauce, a Michelin Man’s arm of the hazelnut cream sits on top, dusted with cocoa and adorned with acidic pearls that spark amongst the otherwise cosy depths. A mint milk sorbet is verdant with the herb, but alas, it crashes the party for the Editor, so I happily throw the ruffian out via my face.
With eyes wide and the exclamation of "It’s a massive Fruit Pastel!" the Editor has signalled we’re now in petit-fours country. Bursting with blackberry and a little blackcurrant, it’s a little classic to end on, essentially being a combination of all the best flavours of Fruit Pastels (I don’t actually know why Rowntrees bother with the orange, green and yellow ones). Until there’s a little surprise. Somebody spilled the tea and caught wind that it’s the Editor’s birthday and so, a buttercream and jam multi-layered slice of cake comes to the table, the candle dutifully protected by the waitress. I’m such a Twitcher for quenelles and there’s a beauty of one here and it absolutely kicks of ginger, right in that fiery sweet-spot.
I’ve more or less given up pointing out prices and portions unless feeling particularly aggrieved and on the whole, Allegra doesn’t give me cause to. Was the birthday cake a bit stale? Sure. Does that make me a prick for pointing that out? Absolutely. Like they’re just going to bake one all the time on the off-chance? What the fuck is wrong with me. It’s the thought that counts and Allegra is a commendable composite of them in the many; to the point where I found myself rabidly messaging mates in the bog like a love-bombed adolescent that's found ‘The One’. Again.
I often shy away from heavily curated and contrived dining experiences that, by trying to appeal to most, end up to the contrary. This, however, was a triumph of a menu comprised of modern, classic cooking that stays true to the idea of ‘allegra’- hearteningly fun and executed brilliantly by the esteemed Patrick Powell and his team (I only counted three in total at a glance on my way back from the loos, impressive for the covers being generated that night). Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling of Spartacus and his men entertaining the masses whilst yearning to be free; I need to see this team in the wild, without the manacles of a hotel. We owe these guys that much, at least.