I will probably never really appreciate wine the same way some other people do. There are now some excellent resources, like Josh’s Wine List, for people who want to be able to differentiate between different types of wine and figure out what they like, without spending a fortune. But I can never really detect much of a difference between a wine that costs £7 a bottle in a shop and a wine that costs £30, and I’d much rather try, say, an interesting sour beer anyway.
Because of this, The Laughing Heart on Hackney Road was never going to be as big a hit with me as it is with many people, particularly people in the restaurant trade. The wine list is long, and expensive – the cheapest bottles start at £30, but the majority cost between £45 and £70.
The menu, though, is fairly standard for a mid-market London restaurant these days, with a few Chinese influences on an otherwise solidly “modern British” selection. Small plates for sharing, divided roughly into what might count as snacks, starters, mains and desserts, as well as something called ‘Lost Souls in a Bowl’, a scallop dish our waiter told us was the head chef’s winning dish on the Great British Menu earlier this year (this season was pop music-themed – a little bit easier going than last year’s pious, manipulative NHS theme).
We skipped that but ordered all the snacks. The sourdough (£3.50) was dense and chewy but with a good, thick crust, and the cultured butter as good as any. Chicken liver pate (£6) was moussey, served with a crispy flatbread that didn’t get in the way of the flavours and a black garlic paste that added a subtle sweet taste.
Beef skewers with cep mushrooms were small for the £7 we paid. The beef was a little chewier than I’d have liked, but the mushrooms gave the same smokey, earthy flavour that I associate with shiitakes, and added something interesting to the flavour of the meat.
The biggest misfire was the pig’s ear, trotter and cucumber salad (£7), which sounded terrific on paper. This was the Laughing Heart’s take on the Sichuanese smacked cucumber with garlic and chilli oil (or perhaps bang bang ji si) that I make for myself at home regularly, but had none of the punch or flavour of the original (as written by Fuchsia Dunlop) or of the version you can get at Silk Road in Camberwell. It was bland and boring, the pork adding very little except some texture, and at a minimum it needed a lot more seasoning (there is no salt provided on the tables).
The tagliolini (£11) was far better – served with flakes of gurnard flesh, olives and tomatoes, with fresh pasta that bounced in my mouth, it was a fresh and lighter take on puttanesca. The best thing, in fact, was the broth that it came in, which carried the flavours of the tomato and gurnard and which we drank the lot of.
Of the “mains”, Cornish cod served with coco de paimpol beans and runner beans in a mussel broth, was well assembled, with fish that was perfectly cooked to the point of translucence. Both beans worked well – the coco de paimpol were creamy and buttery, and the bits of runner bean added crunch and a grassiness that offset them well – although the broth was forgettable. Though the dish was made well, it was similar to dishes I’ve had a dozen times before, and it was too small to justify its £17 price tag.
The best dish was the mangalitsa pork neck, served with a salad of “white kimchi” and a plum puree (£17). The pork was just superb – served pink, with a caramelised rim, it reminded me of the best char siu pork I’ve had, with the silkiness and meatiness you can only get from mangalitsa pork.
To finish, we had an absurdly small creme brulee made with sichuan pepper (£6). This was creamy and rich, but the sichuan pepper flavouring was too gentle and ended up feeling like more of an afterthought or novelty than anything more. And really, it was tiny. How much can some custard and brown sugar really cost?
Our meal for two came to £127, all told, including a £35 bottle of wine. While it had some real highlights, and for about 25% less might have felt quite special, there were too many dull, small or just bland dishes to justify that kind of price tag. While I would recommend it to fans of wine or people who don’t worry too much about the portion-to-price ratio, and I might recommend to you if you were in the area, I cannot recommend it without these qualifications.
Rating: No medals.