The best food, it is often said, comes from small kitchens. It is a compelling idea (although I would exclude hamburger vans at music festivals) and recent meals at two very different London restaurants have supported the theory. The first was at Santo Remedio, a cheerful no-bookings Mexican cantina in Shoreditch. The vivid, spicy flavours of chef/owner Edson Diaz-Fuentes’ food are echoed in the bright decor and crockery, while wife Natalie and her colleagues navigate the room with aplomb, dispensing perky plates of tacos, tostadas and quesadillas.
Guacamole is served in a traditional molcajete (mortar), piquant with lime and chilli: fried grasshoppers are optional, as is the habañero-spiked hot sauce, as volcanic as the rock in the molcajete. Pork carnitas are caramelised with orange and Coca-Cola, then served on corn tortillas; slow-roasted chicken pibil, rust-brown with achiote, is smartly dressed with pink onions and coriander.
Ox tongue is slathered with pipián rojo, a mellow peanut sauce; crisp quesadillas, cooked on the plancha, ooze Chihuahua cheese (named after the northern Mexican city, not the dog, but made in this case in a Peckham railway arch). Santo Remedio means “holy remedy”: it would be the perfect place to cure a hangover, and the food is divine.
On the other side of town, at Marianne in Notting Hill, chef/patron Marianne Lumb has created a top-end restaurant in a similarly tiny space: there are a mere 14 covers. I remember it in a previous incarnation as a boisterous Italian joint in which any idea of food invariably gave way to late-night debauchery; now all is calm elegance, the food refined and sophisticated.
The kitchen’s grasp of both technique and flavour is impressive. Glorious little amuse-bouches (smoked eel on a malty cracker, an ethereally light morsel of panisse, then a little plate of cucumber, soured cream and Beluga caviar) were followed by plump white asparagus with sorrel and ramsons, then linguine with spring truffles.
Slices of scallop were flooded with a sparkling, Thai-spiced broth, poaching them instantly; rosy slices of roast Wagyu fillet and a little pillar of slow-cooked meat from the shoulder were paired with silky pomme purée and fresh morels; finally came a “carrot cake” soufflé with spiced pecans, an ice cream made with triple-cream Brillat-Savarin cheese, and butterscotch sauce.
The wine list is understandably short – Marianne’s cellar is not capacious – but full of interest; service is friendly and faultless. Santo Remedio and Marianne may be small packages, but both are full of very good things.