I realise the world needs another Spuntino blog like Augustus Gloop needed a drink from Willy Wonka's chocolate river, but having recently enjoyed a long, late lunch at Russell Norman's take on a lower east side American diner with my dear friend, Beth, I feel compelled to write about the experience. Not so much to focus on the food, but for the feeling I got while dining here on a frosty December afternoon; a feeling that the Danes would probably call hygge, or the Dutch gezellig.
Although these words are often seen as untranslatable - the closest equivalent we have in English would probably be 'cosiness' - the concept is probably best described as a feeling of togetherness, shared with close friends and family and often involving food and drink. Although the idea is often associated with Christmas and cold weather I have experienced similar moments both sipping dark beer in a brown bar in Amsterdam the week before Christmas and while singing around a bonfire on Midsummer's Eve in Copenhagen.
To be 'effortlessly' cool actually often takes a lot of pre-planning, and on our visit everything just seemed work; from the hipsters in their Christmas jumpers perched around the u-shaped zinc bar to the grungy decor featuring distressed wall tiles, chipped enamel crockery and low-wattage lighting the place seem to generate a happy buzz. The joint was full on a a late Monday afternoon (it is tiny), but fortunately a spot opened up on the only table, tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant, and we settled down for our feast.
Some of this feeling of seasonal goodwill can probably be attributed to the, small but perfectly formed, negronis I was drinking; the perfect balance between gin, red vermouth and Campari garnished with a little festive orange wedge. Negronis are great at any time of year, but I particularly associate the wonderful bitterness of Campari with Christmas after a plum gin-induced holiday hangover that was conquered with the magic powers of Campari and soda.
There was, I'm pretty sure, a little enamel mug of complimentary warm, paprika-spiked popcorn to accompany our drinks. But Beth made short work of it before I could grab a snap.
We tried a couple of fried snacks to start (the menu is mostly comprised of little 'sharing' plates and nibbles); aubergine, sorry, 'eggplant', fries and stuffed olives. The aubergine was lovely and crisp, the fennel yogurt on the side married the pleasant 'mustiness' of cumin spice with a bright lactic tang. The olives, stuffed with anchovy and breadcrumbed, were nice although I preferred them as they cooled and the tangy, fishy, briny flavours intensified.
Fennel, radicchio, and hazlenuts with truffle vinigarette. Sweet-toothed Beth shunned this dish, citing it as 'too bitter', a shame since it was easily the largest plate we ordered and I could have done with the help. Although I enjoyed the crisp fennel and crunch of the hazlenuts, finished with a big hint of truffle oil, there is only so much slaw you can reasonably get through without starting to feel like it's all to much work.
A bite of Beth's pulled pork and apple slider. I was very surprised, and very thankful, that I actually got to sample any of this. Totalling a little more than a few mouthfuls this was a beautiful balance of rich pig and crisp fruit on a bun that was robust enough for the challenge.
Beth's clam chowder, again she was kind enough to share a couple of molluscs with me and I really enjoyed the sweet clams and creamy liquor. Although a sodium chloride lover, Beth did comment that this was on the edge of over-salted, even for her.
My cheeseburger with ultra crunchy shoestring fries. Again this was small, but perfectly formed, beef patty, glazed with cheese and served with red onion rings and pickle spears on the side. Normally I'm not so much of a fan of the DIY burger approach, but I enjoyed alternating between bites of burger and pickles. The patty was not particularly pink in the middle, but it was full of juice, as clearly demonstrated by the geezer of orange burger grease that spurted theatrically everywhere upon my first bite.
As the pale winter light faded and the sparkling lights of London started to spring up outside we had just enough room to share some pud before wrapping up to brave the crowds on Reagent's Street. The PB&J sandwich was masterful desert; strawberry jam oozing from between layers of creamy peanut parfait, topped with a generous handful of crushed nuts. The licorice ice cream with pineapple seemed like an intriguing choice too, and reason for a return visit in less inclement weather.
In a perfect world casual little hole-in-the-walls like Spuntino - where you can pop in for a quick snack, cocktail or full blown feast - would exist on every street corner. But for now this remains a hip Soho gem, and the perfect afternoon spot for reclaiming that fuzzy feeling inside.
|The lovely Beth|