Casa Negra, London EC2, restaurant review

Date:04-09-2013 07:58:09 read:4

Casa Negra, London EC2, restaurant review

It’s a great space in Shoreditch with an exciting, carnival vibe. If only Casa Negra's Mexican fare were less unpredictable.

Casa Negra 54-56 Great Eastern Street, London EC2 Photo: MARK WHITFIELD

Casa Negra 54-56 Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3QR
Contact: 020 7033 7360
Price: Three courses: £27.65

Casa Negra has a wonderful look: in one room, strings of colourful light bulbs and stripey sofas give it a sun-kissed, outdoor, carnival feel; in another, a giant pastel-painted table, juxtaposed with slick black tiles and a jangling chandelier, conjure an indeterminate underworld, in which one eats waiting for the nefarious kingpin to arrive. It has an exciting vibe, even though there are no kingpins to be seen, and it is populated mainly by scenesters who think it's normal to answer their phones at the table. You might call that a young thing. I call it a manners thing.

T and I over-ordered: three starters, a giant main to share, sides of slaw. The menu talks a phenomenally good game, and everything sounded delicious. Guacamole (£5.50) arrived first; you couldn't fault it. I didn't exactly fall about over it, though. A Mexican friend once told me that the difference between a fancy guacamole and a standard one was that they mashed the avocado at your table for the posh version. I don't know what I wanted – certainly not the performance, maybe more coriander, more garlic, more chilli, a more noticeable olive oil? I wanted more magic, I think, but I wonder if that's unreasonable.

We had queso fundido (£7), featuring Chihuahua and Jack cheese. (I don't buy this description – these are two cheeses, but they are so similar the world describes one by likening it to the other.) Oh, it also came with chorizo, which was more of a paste, like 'nduja, and tortillas that were dinky, chewy and maizey. I liked the chewiness, for the determination it demanded, almost like wrestling. T wasn't wild about it, and said the chorizo was too reserved, and the whole thing about one-tenth as tasty as it sounded. I think a cheese called Jack will always be less delicious than it sounds.

Esquites (£7.50), a street-style corn salad with chipotle mayo and a little topknot of pecorino, arrived in a tall, small dessert glass. Its texture was bizarre: lumps of corn drowning in a too-thin broth. I didn't mind the taste; the corn was intense, and the resonant after-warmth of the chipotle was comforting on some profound, multi-sense level. T, not so much: "This is just deranged student food, sweetcorn water in a tiny, inaccessible glass, a mini portal offering very limited access to something it turns out you don't really want. You'd only go after that for the challenge. It's like one of those infantile apps where you have to go after all the red balls."

Suckling confit pig to share (£38) was good – melting, sweetish and moreish, and generous enough to feed three or even four. The garnish I'm sure was traditional but was a bit disappointing; yet more guacamole, very mild radishes, a bit of chopped onion. Luckily, we'd ordered sides as well: a delicious cabbage and chilli slaw (£4) and a sweet potato (£3.50) that sounded much more exciting than it tasted ("fire-roasted", the menu said. I was expecting artful charring, salty, oily skin. A better description would have been "sweet potato that is not raw").

The ice cream (£6) was the only thing that tasted much better than it sounded. A chocolate sorbet reinvented what chocolate should do in a dessert – it was intense but not rich, pure and cooling, frankly amazing. The roast-pumpkin-seed ice cream was beautiful, and the coffee and cinnamon a mild foil. But T's vanilla biscuits (£6) were disgusting: dry, claggy and held together with dulce de leche that tasted of fridge.

It's madly inconsistent, but probably charming enough to get away with it, depending on how you rate the relative values of taste and charm.


La Choza 36 Gloucester Road, Brighton (01273 945 926)

This shocking-pink corner café (filled with kitsch trinkets and clashing fabrics), serves up crispy tostadas filled with its home-made chorizo (£6.50), and sopes (cornflour patties) piled high with beef cheeks and pink pickled onions (£8). Expect zingy ceviches on the specials board.

Chilacas Brindleyplace, The Waters Edge, Birmingham (0121 643 2707)

Burritos, tacos and nachos are the street-food staples served at this vibrant canteen. Choose from slow-cooked pork (£4.95), chargrilled chicken (£5.25) or spicy beef (£5.45) on your tortilla wrap or corn chips, with a slosh of habanero sauce.

Savina 138 Duke Street, Liverpool (0151 708 9095)

A more formal spot, with a smart red-and-black colour scheme, this restaurant impresses with its traditional dishes (think cochinita pibil, a rich stew of braised pork marinated in orange juice, £11.95). Don't leave without trying the churros (£4.95)

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