As London flipped open into tier 2 last week, I headed off to Cafe Deco in Bloomsbury. Or at least I ended up there, after fitting three restaurants into the first 48 hours post-lockdown. Frosty walks through an underpopulated city, spotting “open” signs and freshly chalked menus, have been joyful, as has the warmth of semi-bustling dining rooms to thaw out my cold posterior.
I had very much missed the familiar famished totter from the maître d’s desk to the table, followed by those fantastic first 10 minutes of fondling the menu, surveying the clientele, choosing an aperitif and settling in for some scattergun gossip with a friend. And all this before food even comes into the equation: what the last year has underlined to me is that, often, the cooking isn’t half as important as the togetherness.
That said, at Cafe Deco, a brand new, European-style casual restaurant, I suspected the food would err on the side of remarkable. That’s because the place has one of those restaurant-world pedigrees that makes food scene folk go all dewy-eyed. This is a project co-parented by the owners of 40 Maltby Street. If you’ve never heard of this small wine bar and restaurant (and, recently, wine shop, sandwich-maker and vegetable stall, too) that operates out of a railway arch in Borough, it is because food obsessives don’t want you to know. They’d rather you stayed over in touristy Borough Market, instead of taking their spot at the counter of this relentlessly brilliant place with a kitchen the size of a child’s cupboard. A seat for lunch on a Saturday here makes you feel like one of life’s winners.
Cafe Deco’s other “parent” is the much-lauded chef Anna Tobias, formerly of Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch, where you’ll often find me in the courtyard in summer of a mid-afternoon, having popped in for breakfast of sourdough toast with jam and tea, before becoming wildly derailed by the clientele, a bottle of Le Clos Domaine Boudau and a plate of brill with leeks and bottarga butter sauce. Both Maltby Street and Rochelle Canteen are that specific sort of London fancy-relaxed – frelaxed? – which means there’s no need to wear shoes with heels or a tie that makes you feel like a bank manager, but they’re still very much an event.
Cafe Deco is also the epitome of this airy-fairy elegance. It is a small, pale room with minimal decor save for the appliance of a large bucket of Farrow & Ball Skimmed Milk and a blackboard menu that the server will carry over and balance by your feet while you choose. This list is not remotely challenging to the casual diner, but the standard of ingredients and preparation elevates it. Egg mayonnaise sounds like nothing much, except here it is a fresh, sunset-yolked boiled egg with earth-shatteringly good homemade mayonnaise topped with a fabulous anchovy. The smoked salmon blini is a large, fresh, warm, yeasty Russian pancake generously laden with fine-quality fish, a hefty dollop of creme fraiche and a pretty scattering of chives. Blinis are so often something and nothing; this mega-whopper-blini, however, heavy with topping, was what I’ve been searching for all my life.
Next, a plate of marinated fresh artichokes are titivated, stripped and shaped to a painstaking level that I imagine took at least half a day, and served in an ocean of excellent olive oil. This is clever, finely judged, nicely eccentric cooking with a strong undercurrent of country-house living. There was a very decent beef bourguignon on a bed of thick, buttery mashed potato, and a slab of architecturally beguiling root vegetable pie that took the likes of celeriac and swede, sliced them finely, steeped them in butter and stock, then stuffed them into pastry with handfuls of Lancashire cheese and baked them, to serve warm with a cold dressed salad.
Cafe Deco will certainly leave some people puzzled. For one thing, it feels much more like a cafe than a restaurant, with chairs that don’t lend themselves well to sitting in much longer than an hour. In fact, at first glance, it looks a bit like a sandwich shop with lofty aspirations.
Still, I’m more than happy to be able to add it to my little black book of places that serve interesting, exceptional food. The warm treacle pudding arrived theatrically in excellent custard that almost overfilled the bowl. Merely the memory of this wonderful, sturdy pudding makes me feel giddy. I made short work of it with some rather powerful muscat eau de vie – vicious stuff, served in tiny, egg-cup-sized vintage glasses – that made me temporarily lose the power to see straight. If they lock us all up again in January, at least I’ll have some good memories.