Ah Rita’s. Beautiful, beautiful Rita’s. Let me compare thee to a summer’s day. If music be the food of love, play on. All that jazz. I fucking love Rita’s.
So I first went to Rita’s back when it was a plucky pop-up at Birthdays, serving Chicken and Waffle and Green Chilli Mac & Cheese to bemused hipsters on Stoke Newington Road. It was great. My friends weren’t really in to it (“deep fried chicken and honey?” they cried. “On waffles? With collared greens? What the fuck is this shit?!”)
BUT the boy and I were into it, although one portion of deep-fried chicken on waffles is probably enough cholesterol for a lifetime. They then went away for a bit – to be replaced by Psychic Burgers and now Mother Clucker (FUCK YES, going this weekend).
Rita’s returned with their own little restaurant on Mare Street, in that stretch where all the best resto/ bars have sprouted up (The Advisory, Bouchon Fourchette…) and an Instagram account full of alarmingly off-centre dishes like Sweet and Sour Pig’s Tail and Ox Heart Tartare. Yikes. I tried to get the boy to go a few times but I think these little morsels put him off – until his ‘foodie friends’ all booked a table and he came back, grinning. “Rita’s is great,” he said, like I didn’t know. “Right,” I said. “Take me there.”
So we booked a table for 7.30pm on a Wednesday night – Orange Wednesday’s is date night when you’re cheap like us – ahead of going to see The Wind Rises at the Picturehouse (go see it, it’s beautiful).
They sat us right under the pass at the back – which would have been annoying were it not for all of the delicious dishes passing over our heads. By 8 o’ clock the place was packed – make sure to book ahead.
I started off with a cocktail, the Hard Cidre – Kraken Rum, Cidre Breton, Vanilla and Apple, and the boy had a double bourbon. They were pretty pricey at about £8 each – but both were delicious. It’d be easy to spend a fortune on the booze alone. Wine is sold in a small glass or 500ml – the equivalent of two larges – which comes in at around £15.
Then I got greedy and ordered the bacon peanut brittle snack while we waited. Don’t order this. Not because it isn’t delicious, because it is, but because it’s so goddamn sweet you’ll feel sick but won’t be able to stop. I had one bite and decided to leave it for dessert – it was gone by the time the mains came. It was much more peanut than bacon – with the powdery consistency of shortbread – pure sugar – and the salty kick of the peanuts and pork. Addictive. Stay away.
Next, the Szechuan Pepper Squid. In the words of John Torode – it was ‘a beautiful thing’ (anyone noticed how much he says that? Put a sock in it, Torode). Stand out dish of the night. Give me a bucket of this and leave me alone. The shiny batter had the nobbly, Nik Nak texture of my takeaway staple – crispy shredded beef – coated around buttery squid flesh. Texturally, it was sensational. This dish was not meant for sharing. Order two. Each.
My main was the Ox Cheek, Rice & Barley Congee with Nam Prik Kha. I had to Google that, so let me break it down – congee is basically Asian savoury rice pudding and nam prak kha is a hot Thai dipping sauce usually made with chillies, shallots, lime juice and fish sauce or salt. It was beautiful. Just look at it.
Ox Cheek has become one of my firm faves since first trying it in cheesy deep-fried nugget form at Hawksmoor Bar – and it was just as good this time around, too. The meat fell apart, melting and imparting a deep richness into the creamy congee. The nam prik kha, when whirled into the sauce, provided a welcome chilli punch – straight up the nose. My only complaint was it could have been bigger – it was slightly larger than a starter and I finished it all too quickly. Perhaps order a side of greens… or, in our case, the Green Chilli Mac & Cheese.
‘Green Chilli Mac & Cheese!?’ I hear you cry – that’s right, they hadn’t quite forgotten their Southern Soul from the old days. There were plenty of American influences on the menu too – this place is a real mash up of flavours. Just go with it. They’re famous for their Mac & Cheese and with good reason (you can even find the recipe here) – a whole block of cheese and a bucket of cream bubbling away like a saucy cauldron, with bobbing pits of squiggly pasta and streaks of spicy hot green chilli, accompanied by a blob of guacamole to cool you down, baby. Indulgence in a ramekin – one is enough between two.
The American influence doesn’t stop there, either – for dessert we ordered the rum and raisin custard tart with a big scoop of ice cream (and a crumbly thing on top that I can’t quite remember, my bad). This was the boy’s dish – I like to drink rum not eat it – but it was pretty damn good, with a really boozy kick and a pleasingly wobbly consistency to the custard. I ended up eating my fair share anyway despite my initial girly protests (and popcorn, later. Oh to hell with it).
The boy did have a main – a mutton and cauliflower concoction – but he wouldn’t let me take a picture of it (I believe ‘just let me eat woman!’ were his exact words…) and he’s not here to tell me what it was like, so screw it. I’ll ask him about it later when he comes home. It wasn’t as good as mine, I remember that.
All in all the meal came to about £60 for two with only one drink each – which isn’t the cheapest night out, but damn, Rita’s is good, and I’ve spent just as much at some really terrible restaurants. If you’re broke, wait ‘til payday. But whenever it is – make sure you go. I’ve already got my eye on what I’ll be having next time – the half fried chicken with warm honey and sausage gravy followed by the dulche de leche beignets – I saw both pass over my head and believe me, they looked fucking amazing.
If you see me there – don’t talk to me. I’ll be busy eating squid.
Next up: Mother Clucker at Birthdays. Maybe.
Previous: Duck & Waffle.