db Eats: Carte Blanche

Chilled red wine? Served with oysters? Phallic tarte tatins? Edith Hancock steps out in Hackney to see how the gang at much-hyped newcomer Carte Blanche are doing.

I still remember the first time I was served natural wine. It was 2013, on holiday in the south of France with my parents. We were at some high-concept, allotment-themed restaurant, where the waiters still managed to intimidate us while wearing a uniform comprised of a filthy apron and Timberlands.

“I think this is oxidised,” my dad said, examining the brownish-red soup in his glass under the fairy lights.

“Ah non, that is the way it is,” came the reply as our server shrugged his shoulders, sending flecks of mud into the pea velouté like dirty glitter. We would’ve asked more, but he’d already skulked off to sing to the micro-cress, or something.

We argued a hell of a lot that summer, but we bonded that night. We despised that restaurant. And that man. And his stupid, smelly wine.

Five years on, and of course it’s all the rage in London. Carte Blanche, the new kid on the block a stone’s throw from Hackney Central station, specialises in the stuff.

The concept

Good old-fashioned soul food, like your kaftan-wearing, thrice-widowed grandmére used to make.

Oysters come deep fried and served in their own shell. The mac and cheese is truffled. The fried chicken is sealed in a thick, deep-coloured batter made with beurre noisette, and a few specks of caviar to class it up.

It’s not quite fancy, and it’s not quite down-to-earth, but the new restaurant from Le Bun co-founder Andy Taylor absolutely works, and falls neatly into the third-to-fourth Tinder date category. You want to look interesting, but not flash.

The décor

Much like the food, the vibe is a mash-up of minimalism and maximalism. There are the pink banquettes you’ll see in many a Mayfair haunt, but otherwise the colour scheme draws on the same blue-and-grey tones made famous by the Netflix revamp of Queer Eye. Skateboards line the walls in lieu of still life fruit and fish, and the cosy dining area overlooks a brightly-lit kitchen pass where steam and chatter float out over the guests.

It may not quite class as “décor”, but the winner here is the playlist, packed with the best RnB and Hip-Hop Spotify’s algorithm can muster. Sat at the bar with a negroni looking out onto Mare Street, you could forget you’re in a restaurant at all.

The food

You can’t fault the skill in the kitchen. Even my housemate — who trained as a chef before deciding a career as a developer was more lucrative — was moved to tell me how good the samphire looked on my Instagram post (a “perfect” shade of green, apparently. #nofilter).

We had the cod cheeks, swimming in creamed corn and studded with smokey charcuterie, and pig’s head croquettes to start, both soothing and luxurious in their own right. Not to mention massive. The croquettes came out like meaty boulders, served with something I can only describe as a pease pudding my Geordie-born mother would approve of.

I have a lot of time for a menu whose only plant-based option insults the only people who have to order it; “F*cking Vegans.” I have less time to eat it, though, as even the most seasoned foodie will struggle to feel like they’ve toured the menu at Carte Blanche without missing something. Up next was steak frites — slithers of tender beef over crisp shoestring fries and smothered in a rich, savoury jus; and, of course, fried chicken and caviar.

The batter for the chicken was so thick the meat inside seems to have been steamed more than fried. It was everything you want in a piece of chicken, but it needed more caviar. Then again, you could say that about most things in life, so we couldn’t complain.

Signature Dishes

The Nashville fried oysters are something of a showstopper, miraculously retaining their fresh seaside flavour in spite of a stint in the deep-fat fryer, but for me, the star of the show was dessert. There’s only one option; tarte tatin “hotpocket.” Think of a phallic donut stuffed with warm apple pie filling, and you’re basically there. McDonald’s apple pie à la Hackney. Handy for dipping in the boozy crème anglaise.

The drinks

Carte Blanche makes a big deal of its small but perfectly-formed list of natural wines, particularly the reds which, for the most part, are served chilled. Conrad, our acting sommelier and one of the guys behind the restaurant, said the team spent a lot of time soul-searching across Europe for their low-intervention hipster wines (it’s a living, eh?).

Keeping in the spirit of the evening, we went hipster with the order. Reds with the oysters and starters, whites with the main, and a Gamay packed with fresh raspberries with pudding.

Natural wines aren’t always an acquired taste, but some require more experience. I had a light and fruity Spatburgunder which had just the right amount of residual sugar, and almost acted as a relish with my oysters. However, my dining partner’s choice — “The Fuzz” — reminded me of the time I tried to lose three stone in a month by only drinking apple cider vinegar, only this one makes you put on a few pounds instead. Still if you’re into that stuff, go ahead.

Orange wine is a big deal these days, especially from eastern Europe. Even Aldi stocks one now, so it should be no surprise that our server recommended theirs; a 2015 Slobodne Deviner from Slovakia.

We saved most of our wines for the chicken itself, and this serve, light but with clear notes of melon and papaya, was the perfect match. If the menu is throwing you on the pairing front, their Riesling also steps up to the plate.

The cocktails are not to be ignored either. The French negroni was simple but brilliantly executed, using dubonnet instead of Campari, while the whiskey sour got us off to a heady start.

Who to know: It may be clichéd, but seek out Andy. The Clapton local is very welcoming, and shaking his hand at the end of your date will make you look 17% cooler than you are.

Don’t leave without: Posting your meal to Instagram with the lux filter set to 100.

Last word: Carte Blanche is a welcome addition to the string of natural wine-focused venues cropping up in east London, but it has the potential to be much, much more. I felt let down by the severe lack of caviar on my plate of chicken, which really didn’t need it at all. There are a lot of great ideas going on here, but Andy may need to reign in his creativity if he wants the menu to stand the test of time.

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