Da Terra (“from the ground”) opened in January 2019 and has taken over the site in the former Bethnal Green Town Hall that was previously Typing Room, and prior to that Viajante. The new head chef is Rafael Cagali, who was born in Sao Paolo but spent most of his culinary career abroad. He had previously worked in a two star restaurant in Italy for four years, and then at both Martin Berasategui and Quique Dacosta in Spain. In the UK he worked at The Fat Duck, and with Simon Rogan at Fera, Aulis In Soho and Roganic. His business partner Paulo Airado runs a one Michelin star restaurant called Amelia in San Sebastián. The dining room has changed little since its previous incarnation, having two sections and an open kitchen. There is no menu choice other than a shorter or longer tasting menu, at £73 or £90.
The wine list had 102 bottles, ranging in price from £22 to £800, with the pricing spread being unusual. There were a couple of token wines under £30 but a full 20% of the list was under £50. On the other hand, 43% of the list was over £100 a bottle. The average mark-up to retail price was a chunky 3.5 times, which would raise eyebrows in Mayfair, never mind Bethnal Green, and there were a few eye-watering levels of mark-up on the list e.g. Fattoria San Lorenzo Vigna Paradiso 2006 can be found in shops for £17 yet here was £110. Sample labels were Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico 2015 at £35 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £17, Podere il Palazzino Stagi at £59 compared to its retail price of £18, and Dominio de Pingus 'PSI' at £90 for a wine that will set you back £32 in a shop. For those with the means, the lovely Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva 2007 was £150 compared to its retail price of £50, and Dominio de Pingus Flor de Pingus 2015 was £350 for a bottle whose current market value is £94. Alternatively, corkage was £40 a bottle.
The meal began with a canapé of a dehydrated carrot that had been shaped into a nest, containing pickled carrot and sheep yoghurt, decorated with edible flowers. This was pretty, and quite a technical dish, but as often with molecular gastronomic trickery the torturing of ingredients into unnatural textures came at the price of flavour. I didn’t think the base of the dish worked well, though the pickling juices did balance the sheep yoghurt, so the overall effect was reasonable (13/20).
Much better was scallop tartare, the scallop from the Isle of Mull and served in its shell, along with pickled apples, dill oil, smoked fennel juice, and apple marigold snow. On the side were fake pebbles described as squid ink pillows, containing the scallop roe and a scallop mousse. The shellfish has lovely inherent sweetness, balanced nicely by the acidity of the apple, while the little pillows had delicate shells and a pleasing filling (16/20). The fake pebbles are hardly a new idea, originating at Mugaritz but now seemingly obligatory at modern Spanish restaurants, but the key here was that they actually tasted good.
This was followed by Cornish mussels with white asparagus from an unspecified part of France, served with almonds, trout roe and a sauce of mussel, asparagus and lemon verbena. The asparagus was of high quality and the almonds were a particularly nice touch, giving a contrast of textures (14/20). Next was an English chicken topped with with crisp skin with a soft egg yolk with pickled onions that had been chargrilled and pureed, complemented by chicken sauce. On the side was an eggshell containing chicken liver parfait, and an onion brioche. The bird, supplied by H.G. Walters, had reasonable flavour and was precisely cooked, but I particularly liked the chicken liver parfait and the excellent bread (16/20).
Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, an excellent sourdough that was served warm, alongside a choice of butters and some bone marrow. Cornish cod was poached, presumably slow-cooked at low temperature, and had a pallid appearance, though it was cooked all right. It was topped with a crisp layer of fish skin, accompanied with hispi cabbage that had been glazed with beer vinegar, as well as monks beard, brassica flowers and an elderflower vinegar sauce. On the side were crisp potatoes with cod roe, cured egg yolk and garlic flowers. This was fine, though the poaching of the cod resulted in a rather bland flavour. However I really liked the cabbage (14/20).
I preferred short rib of beef that had been slow cooked on the bone for two days and then barbecued. This came with black garlic sauce, pickled shimeji mushrooms, sea kale, a mild Brazilian sweet chilli and sweet corn with a little bacon and banana, the latter mercifully hard to detect. The beef was very tender and the vinegar from the pickling nicely cut through the richness (15/20). A cheese course now appeared in the form of a “flan” of Tymsboro’ goat cheese from near Bath, topped with a layer of guava jelly and served with crackers of fennel seed and grain. The acidity of the fruit worked nicely with the richness of the cheese, and the crackers were delicate (15/20).
What was described as dessert was instead a typical modern chef’s take on a dessert, where instead of sweetness and pastry technique we get shrubbery. Sorrel ice cream with white chocolate also had gariguette strawberries, fraise de bois (wild strawberries), rose petals, pistachio granola and strawberry liquor. This is not my kind of thing but it was well made in its way (14/20), and my dining companion loved it. Coffee was from a single origin Ethiopian source, and came with petit fours: a little lemon tart that was not quite tart enough, a fairly good doughnut and a jelly made with a Brazilian cocktail called caipirinha.
Service was charming and very slick, with the bill coming to £110 apiece. If you ordered the shorter menu and shared a modest bottle of wine and coffee then a typical cost per head would be around £90. Overall I really enjoyed my meal at Da Terra, and I hope that it prospers in the current rather tricky economic environment for fine dining restaurants.