The Corner Room is sister to Nuno Mendes’ justly acclaimed Viajante, where we enjoyed a well-priced celebratory meal a while back. Highlights? Oh, lobster and confit egg yolk, lamb loin with wild garlic, and even “parsnips and milk” for dessert.
Corner Room opened a year or so back and occupies a less adorned spot in the former Bethnal Green Town Hall building (now swanky apartments and hotel). It purports to be a more casual choice, but nowhere was informality in evidence on our visit. Entering the imposing building on a rainy weekday lunchtime, its much-scrubbed municipal interior seemed rather soulless.
Up the grand staircase we eventually found the entrance to the restaurant, where it was, surprisingly, a trial even to get a table, despite the fact that it was three-quarters empty – and advocates a much-publicised no-bookings policy (but not, we quickly discovered, at lunchtime).
The fairly stern front-of-house allowed us in after a moment’s waver (we were allotted a table for just over an hour), however, in front of us, two tourists weren’t so lucky and dispatched with a warning to book next time, despite pleas that they had. Christ. Isn’t this the opposite of what dining out should be about in 2013?
Yet despite all the entry palaver, the room itself didn’t feel very glamorous. Quite small, like a back office or posh staff canteen; museum restaurant, at a push (before their noughties makeovers). Tables are ear-wiggingly close together, and there’s the usual mix of tiling and industrial lighting alongside rather austere institutional panelling. It’s very bright too.
An apparent lunchtime deal of £17 for two courses (yay!) is listed on the official website, and was the reason for our visit, yet it was nowhere in evidence, and instead we were handed the a la carte. It was a special occasion – in fact, I had no intention of reviewing the place – so we shrugged and accepted it, assuming the deal would be worked out on our bill. We were wrong.
But first, some good things. The menu, being designed by Nuno Mendes, is naturally wonderful to read. The food looked spectacular, as you can see from the pic. Yet our choices disappointed: ‘sea bass ceviche with tangerine and carrot’ was zingy but nearly overwhelmed by notes of cumin; and an ‘aged pumkin [sic] with port, stracciatella and sage’ proved sickly sweet, its monotone flavours more akin to a dessert than starter.
We both opted for steak. Whilst it was unutterably gorgeous to behold, the hanger cut, though perfectly medium rare (as it should be), was quite tough, with none of the flavour of recent onglets we’ve tasted. Furthermore, the accompanying swede was cold, ill-matched with a ricotta that simply got everywhere, stickily coating the meat with its dry, cloying texture. Thank goodness for a very decent wine – as it should be, at a steep £28 a bottle upwards (they don’t have a ‘house’, said the waiter, friendly enough).
The bill hovered up around £90; no sign of that advertised deal either. And throughout, the room remained half empty; pindrop silent apart from one vivacious table of Italians. Towards the end the waiter told us that there was, after all, no time limit, and we could remain as long as we wished. But we paid and left. Admittedly, our visit was in the post-Xmas wasteland, but should it have been quite so underwhelming?
Like a million others, I still applaud Mendes’ ambition. And would return, perhaps in the evening. But the difference, on our visit, between Corner Room and Viajante was palpable.
Words & Pics: Stephen Emms