A small and tightly-packed East End dining room, entered via an art gallery, where Maria Elia (who has a bit of a name, from her time at the Delfina Studio Café) cooks up food of proper restaurant quality.
London’s galleries and museums tend to offer little of interest on the food front. Part of the problem is that, big and institutional bodies as they are, they tend to appoint big, joyless catering companies to do the job for them.
All credit, then, to the relaunched Whitechapel Gallery, which has taken an independent approach to its in-house restaurant. The result is an establishment which doesn’t feel at all institutional. It may be symbolic that, though you enter through the gallery entrance, the restaurant overlooks a busy (and not especially attractive) streetscape, which tends to suggest that this is a ‘real’ restaurant that just happens to be attached to an art gallery. (Perhaps this really is the “ace cafe with a museum attached” of which the V&A once famously boasted.)
On our early-days visit, the place was already busy for lunch, and deservedly so. Perhaps it helps that the chef knows a bit about cooking in a cultural environment. Whatever the reason, the food was much better than one might expect.
And pretty too. Dishes here are carefully plated, and nicely balanced. A ham hock terrine, for example, comes elegantly laid out, and accompanied by nicely-timed quail’s eggs and still-warm asparagus. Bream comes similarly well presented, with mash and beetroot. Even the few elements involved in a dish of good treacle tart and crème fraÃ®che are carefully composed. Bread and coffee are well above average.
There are niggles. Space is tight. Prices are just a touch higher than you might hope. Bread does not come gratis. Service rather comes and goes. But all these are details. This is a gallery restaurant seemingly run as a restaurant, rather than as an afterthought. Surely this is an idea that might just – finally – catch on?