Feeling an intense rumbling during a meal is usually either an indication that the waitress has taken far too long with your order or Apple have updated your iPhone’s vibrate setting to ‘pneumatic’. However, in the case of Helio’s Cantina, it just means that the trains are running on time, given that they travel through the tunnel under which the chic new restaurant is situated. All aboard? Let’s take it for a ride…
Anyone travelling to the restaurant by foot will have to have their aforementioned iPhone’s GPS system polished and prepped, as it is tucked away in the backstreets of Hackney. After several strolls up and down the adjacent pathways, during which my friend and I must have looked like London’s most clueless drug dealers to the group of youths hanging around the street corners, we happened upon the semi-hidden entrance and entered the critically lauded restaurant that has been the most recent addition to the Institute Of Light.
Now, I just mentioned the phrase ‘critically lauded’, which isn’t one that I overuse – this is because the chef, Helio Fenerich is Nigella Lawson’s favourite chef. I’ve always had a crush on Nigella and if she recommended her “favourite” set of exercises to alleviate menstrual cramps, I’d probably give it a go. Either way, Fenerich has created a fairly comprehensive menu of rustic Italian small and large plates, perfect for starter-main style eating or tapas-style sharing.
My friend is a jazz drummer and instantly recognises the Coltrane record that’s noodling away in the background of the sparse yet stylish venue, an actual record player providing the soundtrack, lending its retro cred an injection of cool. The open kitchen reveals chefs sharing a chortle as a mellifluous saxophone sails over the heads of the small collection of diners perched on the ’70s-style chairs and booths.
The friendly waitress talks us through the menu and after a little deliberation we make our choices, which includes a bottle of very agreeable Portuguese Touriga Nacional red called Humus. The full-bodied wine delivers a dark fruity kick with a very little bite, the lack of sulphites creating a lighter, organic mouthfeel.
The starters arrive and a small plate of grilled octopus and potato is doused in a Mediterranean garnish of black olives, chilli and garlic. Nothing too over-the-top, just simple flavours done very well, allowing the tenderness of the flesh to be the star of the show. A simple salad of Spanish cured beef and rocket is adorned with generous shavings of manchego cheese as well as long strips of lemon peel and transports me to the beaches of San Sebastian with every bite.
The main courses are equally impressive, a risotto of girolles (chanterelle) mushrooms coated liberally in thinly grated Parmesan; the chewy consistency of the fungi at pleasant odds with the thick, creamy sauce that coats the plate. A fillet of seabass is pan-seared to perfection and paired with an almost chocolatey black olive tapenade that lends a welcome tang to the dish. A small mound of rapini and green lentils adds a tart protein punch, creating one of the healthiest tasting fine dining dishes I’ve had in a long time.
As we toast to what has been a delicious meal in quirky but charming surroundings, other patrons shuffle out of the cinema section which is next door. Punters can come and enjoy a three-course meal and an independent classic such as Once upon A Time In The West and Taxi Driver for just £30. I’ll certainly be back to indulge in what sounds like a fantastic way to spend an evening, although I’ll probably upgrade to a two-seater sofa – I don’t want to risk getting cramps, no matter how easy Nigella says they are to get rid of.
Helio’s Cantina, Arch 376, 10 Helmsley Place, London, E8 3SB
The restaurant is a five-minute walk from London Fields station in Hackney. Look out for a chalkboard pointing down Helmsley Place. It is open Wednesday to Friday from 6:00pm to 11:00pm and Saturday and Sunday from 11:00am to 11:00pm.
Type of Restaurant: Artisan Italian Restaurant
“Tricky to find but worth the journey, this quaint, cool venue serves up excellent Mediterranean fare and a decent cocktail list.”
Price Band: Medium
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10
David Harfield is the director of PepperStorm Media and writes about his three passions: food, booze and travel.
Photographs courtesy of Helio’s Cantina
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