Restaurant review

Ombra, Hackney: ‘will make you cry’ – restaurant review

Say that Shadow occupying uninviting premises would be an astounding understatement. It overlooks a canal, which may be charming in Venice but brings little joy to Hackney. It reuses commercial premises, designed in the 1970s without apparent effort, which have fallen into what we could charitably call a scandalous disuse. There is a terrace, which must be buzzing on pleasant summer evenings but which in winter has the only tectonic advantage of protecting you from the view of the A107 with its wall of plastic sheeting.

Inside, they’ve set up a restaurant much like you might set up a forward operating base. But, my God, they prepare food that will make you cry.

Historians have obviously failed to isolate when bologna got so cool. I mean, for years he was the naughty orphan child of the deli board; flabby, lard-speckled meatloaf, ignored by all but the most zealous salumists and then suddenly, bang, you can’t travel east of the Inns of Court for artisanal tube meat. Do not mistake yourself. This reappropriation is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Ombra’s boar mortadella is a minor miracle to say the least, and rolled up on a gnocco fritto – a carbo-puff, somewhere between an incredibly light fried pitta and a bread apple soufflé – it’s enough to sustain a formal decree of beatification, if not actual sainthood.

Cacio & Pepe Gougère, to be brutally honest, didn’t live up to their potential. The little cabbage bombs were fine, but a sprinkle of grated cheese and black pepper isn’t enough. C&P isn’t cheese or pepper, it’s their outrageous union in comforting lipid glop, which is exactly what I want my gougères to be full of. Serving them alongside the gnocco was the kind of mistake you make when you have a double date with your richer, wittier, and handsomer friend.

When I’m king of the world, I think I could get rid of the burrata. It’s too easy to roughly tear, drizzle with oil, and call for an entree. Fortunately, at Shadow, they do neither. The bravely unripped ball of cheese nestles in the curve of a grilled wedge of sweet pumpkin, swallowed in a pool of the same turned into an eerie mash, then topped with crispy fried sage and crumbled Amaretti cookies. It’s a tried-and-true flavor combination, so it’s to their credit that they successfully and memorably delivered it.

A whole fried Roman artichoke looks and feels like oily potpourri, but it tastes amazing. There’s always a steamed sweet heart, but to get there, you happily eat half a bowl of fibrous chips. . . in the right direction. This is one of those dishes that doesn’t require any complicated dressing. The way the caramelization and bitterness come together with the creamy, ever-subtly flavored core triggers more synapses of joy than any sauce.

The day I’m not drawn to raw meat on a menu, I suggest you take me back through the trash and finish me off with a few brainstem tricks, but raw lamb is a challenge. Lebanese kibbeh nayeh counteracts the lanolin fat of the hash with garlic, onion and spices, but here it’s served plain, to mix it better with a strong tuna mayonnaise – basically tonnato sauce. It’s not a combination I’ve come across before, but it’s inspired. You know how anchovies somehow enhance rare roast lamb? Yeah. This. Power 10. Served with pear and puntarelle, this is my first contender for “dish of the year”.

Dessert was a tiramisu, noble and light, with a stimulating shot of espresso, lots of chocolaty depth and as much detectable alcohol as a 12-step meeting. I don’t know how this is possible. Parsimony was certainly not characteristic of anything else on the menu. Maybe it’s a dry January thing. Anyway, I managed to drown my disappointment in the pears and the taleggio, which at least immediately proclaims its asceticism.

Ombra’s odd layout puts the kitchen halfway up the back wall, like a Royal Box. You can almost feel the chef, watching absolutely everything from above, controlling the proceedings. If that’s how he choreographs such a great experience, then that sounds like a really good thing to me.

Ombra Bar & Restaurant

1 Vyner Street, London E2 9DG; 020 8981 5150;

Snacks and starters: £2.30-£11
Sector: £11 to £28

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and send him an e-mail at [email protected]

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