Never judge a book by its cover: but when a restaurant’s street-facing shop window is so charmingly ornate, I’m willing to make an exception.
It’s hard to walk past L’Eto Caffe, which basks in the satisfied glow of Chelsea’s famously decadent Kings Road, and conceal an immediate urge to enter and exchange all your coins for the beautifully choreographed pastries, cakes and choux, piled like pyramids of colourful cartoon treasure.
These well-groomed treats feel like a throwback to a gentler time, like going to the funfair. It is a marvellous welcome to an intriguing and memorable little diner. Within, the decor largely lives up to its turn-of-the-century Edwardian townhouse vibe: pastel-coloured armchairs, old-timey drawing-room wallpaper and the kind of props you’d expect to find in an affluent children’s nursery. I would anticipate Archduke Franz Ferdinand to stroll in wearing his full outrageous uniform, if I wasn’t so totally aware of his unforgettable role in world history.
Yet for a quaint cafe dressing itself in the comfortingly familiar attire of opulent European yesterdays, the menu is a challenging foray into the unexpected. Many dishes begin with something familiar before twisting the expected narrative into something much more intriguing. Oh look, there’s good old lasagne with…crab…and parsley butter? And here’s some lamb steak, I’ll dip it into the chilled tomato salsa, just like normal. On the cover, L’Eto Caffe looks like an Enid Blyton novel: step inside and it’s Franz Kafka. L’Eto Caffe won’t let you dine with dashing your preconceptions, and largely, they pull it off. In a city full of identical menus, distinguishable only by alternate logos and minutely adapted promotional copy, here at least is something memorable.
If there is a theme to be uncovered beneath the trickery, it’s staple French and Italian food. My starter is a straightforward dome of pristine mozzarella, sitting like the white face of a full moon amidst a colourful starscape of halved cherry tomatoes. With a drizzle of olive oil moistening the burrata and bringing life to the tomatoes, it achieves the highest possible aim of the starter, leaving me wanting much, much more. My partner, meanwhile, opts for something more complex in the form of a duck and hoisin salad, sprinkled with pomegranate. From the refugee forkful which finds itself on the shores of my plate, it’s not the most natural fusion, with the fruit categorically refusing to make peace with the sauce.
Rose-pink in the middle and charred on the edges, medallions of lamb arrive slanted along a bed of cous cous, Bulgar wheat and quinoa, a combination happily validated by the history of Moroccan cuisine. The landscape of subtly differing grains adds welcome variety to the carbohydrate element of the dish, giving you a number of textures to combine the lamb with. Less obvious is the flat bowl of salsa on the side, the kind usually found in accompaniment to a bag of Doritos. In one sense it works, bringing out the latent sweetness of the lamb, but on the opposite side of my plate – I say ‘plate’, it’s shaped more like a canoe – an incomprehensible cube of feta cheese is harder to profitably employ. It sits there staring at me like an unsolved equation for the first half of my meal, puzzling me with its mere presence. Feta has a rather astringent flavour, which I love, but it feels like there’s too much going on here, the addition of one flavour too many. It doesn’t prevent the dish from being a real success – the lamb is so fine you could plonk a Dairylea triangle on it without spoiling the taste – and it’s easy to forgive a flourish which, if nothing else, culminates in good cheese.
It’s far more difficult to go wrong with dessert at L’Eto Caffe. Simply stand up, walk to dazzling theatre of the display window, and pick whatever looks tastiest. The waitress recommends a slab of honey waffle cake, which can comfortably make a case for best dessert at L’Eto Caffe, and therefore putting it high in the running for best post-dinner treat in London. Reminiscent of the famous Hungarian layer cake Dobostorte in both texture and appearance, the fine crumb is saturated with the taste of honey yet miraculously avoids being overly sweet. It’s light, moist and rich, all at once, a playfully simple finale.
For all its quirks, L’Eto Caffe is a nice place to eat. The staff are impeccably kind and attentive, the selection of wines ample, and inevitably the dishes are priced a cut above what I would comfortably label ‘reasonable’. In spite of its pretentions to a humble Berber’s-lunch authenticity, the lamb dish is a sizable £24. The starters are similarly imposing, scaling the heights of £15 and beyond, although the desserts are much more affordable. Still, if you want to charm and challenge your palate in the cosy Parisian embrace of L’Eto Caffe, there is always the temptation of summoning a treat from the display. After all, with a shop window as enticing as this it would be very hard to resist.
words Chris Zacharia