Café Cecilia, 32 Andrews Rd, London E8 4FX
Gentrified neighbourhoods often have me feeling a bit hoodwinked when eating in them but occasionally, you’ll find somewhere that doesn’t feel like it’s stifling a laugh in disbelief as you’re handed the bill. Rather, “Café” Cecilia is this almost zen experience of sure-footed cookery that suffers no crisis of self-esteem or identity, something reflected in the whitewashed, near monochrome interior. A leading clue to the St. John’s heritage chef-owner, Max Rocha.
Ask anyone who’s unfortunate enough to know me and they’ll tell you that ‘efficiency’ isn’t really in my wheelhouse. I’m a ditherer that gets paralysis from analysis unless it's of a menu. This kind of assertiveness is something I look for in fellow diners- not just for our sakes, but for the person taking our order which we fire off like a surgical strike. After rattling through the smaller plates, we each take up a position on a protein; I’m team Middle White pork belly, Xanthe with absolute deadpan clarity takes mutton and Chris falls on the hype-sword with the onglet.
The Guinness bread is cosy with malty sweetness and toothsome with grain whilst the sourdough is a textbook specimen; webbed crumb and still a little dewey. The standard practice of squirreling some away for the impending moperation takes some doing.
Gnarly twists of sage and anchovy fritti resemble something from the coral reef, with its delicately translucent batter. Did the thought of an improvised sarnie cross my mind? You betcha. But I resisted. I know. Well done, me.
Rarely am I star-struck by a dish, but the onglet, chips and peppercorn sauce is picture perfect. It’s just like how it is in the movies. Bark mottled with char surrounding a deeply blushing mosaic of fibres and lazing across a pool of rich, Ikea mustard throw-coloured sauce. A bowl of equally renowned chips make up the rear of the entourage, even posing for a photo with the fans before being totally decimated. The bitter cold snap has turned every surface into a heatsink, so it’s difficult to tell where hunger begins and eating at pace for heat's sake, ends.
The pork belly is something I’m proud of on the kitchen's behalf. Sporting a breastplate of crisp bobbled skin, it's protecting an absolute unit beneath- the fat rendered so thoroughly that both it and the flesh become indistinguishable to the knife. A fat dollop of celeriac purée splodges beside, rampant with cream and as buttery as the heap of cavolo nero beside it, with a sticky lick of apple butter biting through the heft.
I don’t know who’s in charge of the portions here, but give them a raise. The mutton is sliced thick and splayed out in carnivorous pageantry, leaning on a heaving gratin of swiss chard and seasoned with anchovy and graveled with breadcrumb. Hitting all those classic notes in an elevated ‘lunch at your wealthy auntie’s house’ way, I don’t know how this place can class itself as a "café".
Committed groupies working their way through that band as we are, we reach desserts. A warm spiced apple cake paddling in Jersey cream is something right out of your nan’s playbook. The apple still with bite, the spicing warm and familiar- what a cold-snap demands. The semifreddo feels very Honey & Co- riddled with pistachio and whirling with honey that blooms on the tongue as it thaws. The chocolate cake in particular, is mad. A wedge that splices centre-of-the-tray brownies, ganache, and actual cake, moody with cocoa and unapologetic with butter- it is, unreservedly, break-up food. Riding sidecar is an optional yet obligatory scoop of Guinness bread ice cream. Plus the leftover Jersey cream. My body is a temple housing a shrine to dairy.
Lastly, it’s that final bastion of the hypeman. The deep-fried bread and butter pudding and cold custard. Flicking through our sensory rolodex, Xanthe nails it- with a sparkling coat of sugar and residual heat it’s evocative of the doughnuts at fairgrounds, minus the delicious tang of petrol fumes and screaming. I am, however, screaming internally. I do not want to share. The things we do to be civil in this world.
It’s another institution ticked off the list and another frustration added because, as much as I intend to keep working my way through this city, "Café" Cecilia is the sort of place that my mind will claw itself back to in the event of a rubbish experience elsewhere. But in a rare attempt at positivity, this place is firmly in the back pocket of guaranteed good times. Even if that means the duress of sharing again.