Monday, 28 October 2013

Restaurant review: Upstairs at The Ten Bells, Spitalfields

Above the pub famous for being a haunt of Jack the Ripper, and the location for his hook-up with his final victim Mary Kelly, my Dad and I intrepidly went for dinner on Thursday night.

According to latest noise pollution levels from Hackney Council, The Ten Bells is the loudest pub in the borough. Probably.

Hurdle number one, therefore, is getting through the pub to reach the unassuming stairs in the back corner to get up to the first floor dining room.

And in so doing, it’s as if the landlord of The Ten Bells has done everything in his power to make your journey unappetizing.

The air is moistened with people’s clothes and hair wet from the rain, the temperature is rainforest humid, the noise from thirsty revellers packing the bar is almost painful.  Like when a sudden loud sound makes you want to burst into tears or clobber someone. As you get to the stairs you pass the well down to the subterranean toilets, graffiti’d, defaced and looking much like a crack den.

My Dad summed it up nicely: “it’s terribly East London.”

In our safe enclave on the first floor, Dad got out his torch app on his iphone to read the menu. It’s an atmospheric setting, one room with windows overlooking Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, dimly lit, and full of battered wooden furniture.

The music deserves a mention, because it seemed like one of the staff had their iphone on shuffle with a limited repertoire of about 15 songs. We heard Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out four times. It could’ve been worse I suppose.

We had a sharing table, which meant that we were joined by two perfect strangers about halfway through our meal. You could tell the other couple were a little uncomfortable with the proximity, when the chap nervously asked the waitress “could we go on that table, to save disturbing these people?” 

They couldn’t, because Upstairs at The Ten Bells was fully booked, the dining room soon becoming as busy and cacophonous as the downstairs pub. My dining partner and I were halfway through our magnum of red wine by that point, so didn’t mind the interlopers as much as we thought we would.

And that’s the thing – this place has an undeniable popularity.
Analytically, it’s hard to see why. However, there is something nicely but not dangerously intoxicating about the place. It just kind of sucks you in until you realize that you’re talking at a decibel level that Gregg Wallace would shrink from.

The food, unfortunately, was disappointing.
Dad had leeks in a cheese fondue sauce to start, then partridge. I had lamb sweetbread ravioli then beef rump. We also tried the buttermilk chicken as a snack with our opening cocktails.  Dad’s dessert came up trumps. The cheese selection was sourced from Androuet in Spitalfields over the road. But the three cheeses on offer were all soft white cheeses. Which is not really a ‘selection’ in my book. Mix it up a bit at least. Or dash across the road and go and buy some hard and blue.

The atmosphere – against all right to be – was better than the food. Still good value but wouldn’t be in a hurry to return.  Or perhaps I would – if only to check that those ‘edgy’ toilets in the latrinalia style are for real. 

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