Escocesa Review

I arrived at Escocesa misinformed. My limited research led me to believe I was coming to a Spanish-Scottish fusion restaurant. The very name, meaning ‘Scottish’ in Spanish, seemed to suggest Stoke Newington’s hipsters had run out of ideas. What was I setting myself up for? Battered chorizo? Deep-fried manchego? Morcilla with neeps and tatties?

Fortunately, as we arrived on a Sunday evening it was clear I was wrong. The front room houses an open kitchen, complete with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and bar stools for casual dining. Behind lies the main dining room which thankfully takes bookings, unlike many similar outlets, such as The Barbary in Covent Garden. The restaurant was full of families celebrating Mother’s Day.

My preconceptions swiftly evaporated; this was no half-baked fusion, but a quality tapas restaurant, with a menu celebrating Spanish classics, from patatas bravas to platters of chorizo and jamón ibérico. Escocesa takes its name from a focus on Scottish ingredients, particularly seafood, which is among the best in the world. Much of it is sent to Spain, but owner Stephen Lironi, helped by an array of Spanish chefs, has brought the good stuff back to the UK.

We started with pádron peppers, a Galician classic of grilled small green peppers doused in olive oil and salt, which were remarkably moreish. A second helping was mistakenly offered to us; we happily accepted the orphaned peppers. Fellow starters came swiftly. Catalan pan con tomate, bruschetta-like bread with a garlicky tomato topping, were the best I’ve had outside Spain. The jamón croquettes were creamier, cheesier and tastier than the average London fare.

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Pan con tomate

The attentive and well-informed staff recommended three sharing plates each, but we ordered more as there were too many enticing items on the menu. The first larger plate to arrive was from the specials board, grilled squid on a bed of tomato and fried chorizo, and was beautifully executed. Grilled prawns in garlic and olive oil came next, and we made a highly satisfying mess of them.

The piece de resistance was a superb squid slider. Rings of lightly-battered squid and a heavy dollop of aioli engulfed by a magnificent squid ink brioche, a nice touch of creativity. The meal was accompanied by some excellent Rioja and a fine bottle of craft beer brewed in Barcelona. We ended our night with homemade ice cream, the highlight of which was the salted caramel.

The only hiccup, apart from a couple of long waits between dishes, was a greasy deep-fried aubergine. Perhaps the Scottish influence did creep in after all? But Escocesa has a laid-back, unpretentious decor, classic Caribbean tunes adding to the atmosphere, and is cheaper than many of its rivals. We focused on the seafood menu, leaving plenty of enticing meat options for next time. 

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele brings traditional Neapolitan pizzas to Stoke Newington

In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts’ character famously falls in love. Though a man was the object of one of her desires, the film’s best love story involves Roberts and a pizza. Not just any pizza. At L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of Naples’ oldest and best-loved institutions, Robert declared she was “having a relationship” with her Margherita. Not quite “I’ll have what she’s having”, but a memorable scene nonetheless.

In 1870 da Michele began producing pizzas for hungry Neapolitans. 147 years later, they have brought their world-famous pies to London. Unparalleled hype means da Michele has had no problem attracting customers to its first London outpost, situated in the hippest of locations on Stoke Newington Church Street. On my first visit, a week after opening, it took two hours to finally get a table, though we were free to wander and wait for the restaurant to call. The clientele was mostly Italian, always a good sign.

The restaurant is small and unpretentious despite its trendy surroundings. The hustle and bustle of 40-50 hungry foodies waiting for a table or a takeaway makes for a challenging environment, but the staff calmly dealt with it. The menu is short, a big Italian middle finger to unnecessary ostentation; there’s no venison or kale here. There are only two options: the classic Margherita, and a Marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano), and the drinks menu is equally concise. The customer next to us was denied chilli oil. This is my kind of place.

The pizza arrived promptly, and my god was it worth the wait. Da Michele have flown in Neapolitan experts, and have even adapted their dough recipe to suit the British climate. Meticulous attention to detail is crucial for such a simple dish, and da Michele pulls it off as well as anywhere in London.

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“Jesus, those are huge!” was my first impression as the waiter brought our giant Margheritas (£7.90). The dough was beautifully chewy, light, and bubbly, with charred spots providing the characteristic Neapolitan look, taste and texture. Mozzarella was sparsely dispersed, allowing the real party piece, the sweet, fresh tomato sauce, to shine. It is brave to strip down to the basics, especially to Londoners used to artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables atop their pizza, though da Michele will offer a rotating specials menu. But when the basics are this good, there is no need for more.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not a trail blazer in the London pizza scene. Since 2008, when Franco Manca first opened its doors, Neapolitan pizzas have become overwhelmingly popular, and several establishments across London serve excellent versions. What the doyens of da Michele have done, however, is to bring the original, humble pizza back to its simplest form.

And finally, a message to Julia: you may have entered a relationship with your pizza, but, sorry to break the news, your pizza has moved on, finding a new lover in London. As soon as the crowds die down, I’ll be back.