Neither the faintly scathing broadsheet reviews nor the tabloid reports of ‘celebrity’ nights out ever made me want to visit Soho’s La Bodega Negra. Weird.
Still, I’m definitely not averse to relatively authentic Mexican food coupled with a relaxed atmosphere, so was interested to see restaurateur Will Ricker drop a new offering on a similar theme into his Great Eastern Dining Rooms site to the east of the City; not least because the chef employed to set up and run the restaurant, Brad McDonald, was known for cooking up innovative food at the New York ‘farm to table’ restaurant Governor, before it was sadly ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. An intriguing match.
Casa Negra is, in their own words, the ‘naughty little sister’ of La Bodega Negra. This little sister is not as sex shop obsessed as her sibling, and instead of suggestive neon signage is decked out somewhat bizarrely (but bizarrely successfully) as a sort of beach bar and restaurant built within the confines of someone’s house. Totally random, but fun and comfortable enough. There was a good buzz on the night I visited. The existence of a bar/club underneath the restaurant and the fact 8 out of the 10 A5 menu pages are drinks, gives a reasonable hint that this is intended to be, and probably will be, a sociable place.
We were encouraged to have a few antojitos (snacks), tacos and mariscos (cold seafood dishes), two or three platos principales and a few sides to share … and then see where that got us. You can order more easily enough, our delightful waitress informed us, as the food comes out quickly.
So we grazed on well textured and seasoned guacamole and very good corn tortilla chips, a highly enjoyable plate of mackerel ceviche, strongly flavoured and heated by three types of chilli (just to the point where the senses are heightened and before it becomes uncomfortable), superb braised beef tongue tacos and cochinita pibil (braised pork) tacos, which were juicy, meaty and well balanced by earthy achiote and the sweetness of orange.
Mains were decent too. Spicy fried chicken was as good as fried chicken gets: the presumably brined thigh and drumstick meat was moist and fell of the bone, a crisp, dry, well seasoned batter crunched and shattered satisfactorily. Grilled skirt steak was maybe slightly over, but well rested and full of flavour, as skirt (onglet) always should be. The pool of salsa it sat in added to the flavour of the meat rather than overpowered.
All good then?
Not really. Grazing was definitely the operative word and we remained pretty hungry at the point of having consumed the above plates and a few sides. The tacos were two bite at the most and came just as pairs at £6 a pop; guacamole and ceviche were never going to touch the sides; and tasty as the chicken and steak were, £14 for one drumstick, one thigh and some slaw, and £19.50 for one onglet and a salsa, but no other sides, are tomando el pelo, si te preguntas.
I think we would all have enjoyed trying more of the food, but seeing that we were £30 down per person already, we made the fairly unusual (for us) collective decision to cut our losses and head elsewhere for our fill.
Cost and portion size are out of kilter at Casa Negra. £6 is simply far too much for two small tacos, regardless of how tasty the 15g of protein is; similarly £14-19.50 for unadorned plates of deep fried cheese, braised meats and cheap cuts. If I learnt only one thing from a couple of months spent in Mexico, it’s that rice, beans and corn tortillas are dirt cheap and come with everything. So to pay £3-4 each for a mini-cocotte of rice or beans, and the same for three 15mm slices of baked sweet potato to go with those main courses is vaguely insulting.
The food is a good example of its type, the room is an enjoyable one to be in and the service very competent, so I’m sure that, lubricated by good cocktails and stomach unlined, a very fun night could be had at Casa Negra. But it is billed as a neighbourhood restaurant not a bar, and they’ll need to drop the prices or increase the portion size for me to return.
Casa Negra in 3 words
Might leave peckish
£35 and up for a reasonable fill. Much more if you include a drink or three.
www.casanegra.co.uk – 54-56 Great Eastern Street, EC2A3QR – 02070337360