It’s been tricky keeping up with the plethora of new openings in post-lockdown London (very much a first world problem, I know). Some have been very high-profile, such as the NoMad Hotel or Italian emporium Eataly; then there are the stealth openings emerging without fanfare, like new Greek restaurant Nonós on Judd Street; and finally, an interesting category of ‘provincial’ restaurateurs choosing to expand in London, such as Stow-on-the-Wold wine bar The Cellar which has just opened a branch in King’s Cross.
Cin Cin London falls into the latter category, throwing Covidian caution to the wind and setting up a new venture (technically their third) in the eye of the storm. They’re mightily proud of their Brighton and Hove roots – that was evident enough when no fewer than three staff asked me “have you been to our Brighton original?” And why shouldn’t they be? Their Brighton and Hove restaurants, co-founded by ex-lawyer David Toscano and chef Jamie Halsall, have acquired quite the loyal fan base, a Michelin Bib Gourmand and accolades a-plenty.
Here in the buzzy medialand of Fitzrovia with Facebook’s London HQ and the BBC just metres away, they’ve retained a small, neighbourhood café feel in what used to be the Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack. In the background, audible but not too loud, a pleasing soundtrack of Simple Minds, David Bowie, Duran Duran and OMD. It was like hearing my own iPhone playlist of 80s classics being played back at me. That is personal taste of course, and perhaps a sign of the demographic they’re aiming for, but I knew we were going to get on famously. Most importantly though, there isn’t an Italian cliché in sight. Black and white stills from La Dolce Vita have their place – usually adorning the walls of Ciao Bella where kitsch décor is the law – but it’s very difficult for anywhere else to pull that off convincingly without looking a bit naff.
As for the food, they haven’t fallen into the trattoria trap here either: again, apart from certain hallowed institutions, many of these run the risk of becoming a tribute band to Italian food (to the extent such a thing exists for a country so assiduously regional in its cuisine). Chef patron Jamie appears to be quite hands-on, even helping out serving plates when not cooking. And from that kitchen came plate after plate of well-executed dishes in a similar vein to Trullo, perhaps even The River Café.
A set five course menu is available but we went for a mix-and-match option of à la carte and blackboard specials. Starters from said menus are around £8-10, mains circa £20 and desserts comfortably £8 or so.
To accompany cocktails – many of which feature Regal Rogue vermouth – a generous brick of rosemary focaccia was torn off with joy and dunked into Pugliese olive oil and aged balsamic. Then, the freshest Marinda tomatoes with Lambrusco vinaigrette and a delightful arancino of South Coast crab with basil emulsion.
From the blackboard this time, a tuna tartare with orange and fennel. And now the juices really got flowing – almost literally, with the occasional burst of citric acid from the orange combining with the aniseed of the fennel, each complementing the raw fish. It was almost like a ceviche in that respect, but tamer, and perhaps needed something crunchy for textural contrast.
The monkfish tail with cocco bianco beans, radicchio, rosemary, green olive and hazelnut agrodolce was heavenly, whilst the kitchen’s cookery skills impressed with the Blythburgh pork. Here, it was cooked just south of pink and retained that crucial moisture; the ratte potatoes, peppers and salsa verde on the side were the perfect foil to the chop. Each ingredient was there for a reason and with nowhere to hide.
For dessert, Jamie personally recommended the torta di riso with blood orange sorbet but “only if you have room.” Well, you make room for desserts like this. The perfect marriage of rice pudding and crème brûlée, what could possibly go wrong? Lighter desserts, such as a date ice cream affogato, are options too.
I had a couple of minor quibbles on this first visit (making allowances for it being new). The wine list is limited with around six reds and whites, all of which are quite young and appellations incline towards Sicily, Lombardy and Tuscany, but full marks for being entirely Italian and perhaps the selection will grow with time. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the rhubarb bitters infiltrating my Negroni either, but these are quite fastidious points in the grand scheme.
Despite the tiny 20-cover space at no point were we rushed in order to allow for later sittings and staff took pleasure in talking about the dishes without upselling (or at least not obviously so). It seems this London outpost of Cin Cin has its priorities right: making sure customers have a good time rather than seeing them as a source of profit. I have high hopes for this lovely place.
21 Foley Street
by J A Smith