There are some openings that immediately take precedence, jumping straight ahead of the queued list of venues I want to try. Usually these are places where I know something of the owners or chef, so already have an insight into whether I’ll like the style, or maybe a second or third (or more) opening from a favourite – see here Russell Norman’s imminent opening of Ape and Bird. Or else it simply promises to be my sort of thing, essentially; casual food, bar dining, cocktails and fun. Rita’s is all of these. Well sort of, as it’s mark two of their pop up at Birthday’s, last years instant success on Stoke Newington High Street. I loved it then; it was messy, hectic, slightly grimy and thoroughly enjoyable, comfort-food bar dining at its best, and I was dying to see how they’d evolve into their very own space.
Not knowing remotely what to expect but hoping the menu won’t have changed too much, I headed up to their permanent spot on Hackney’s Mare Street last Thursday. My first impression is ‘clean’; in appearance it’s the antithesis to Birthday’s manic lurching bar, dark walls and sticky floor. Here there are white walls and sweetly pink upholstery; a Barbie boudoir, sugary dream of white with pale pink frosting. Don’t be fooled though; there’s nothing twee here, any notions erring on the wrong side of saccharine are tempered by a rocking soundtrack and edgy atmosphere, saturated with hardcore frying and a very sound menu indeed. A slim front bar section leads out to the main dining area, with bar to the right and open kitchen at the back, stairs lead down to another dining area that smells enticingly, promisingly of fried chicken.
A sour cherry Four Roses number in hand, we browse the new menu with glee, a merry mix of old favourites along with the new and an asian spin. Although I love the sound of the pigs head ham noodles and crispy duck with mooli slaw, and the miso aubergine with mushroom toban is a must for another visit, we’re hankering after some good old fashioned Rita style food. Nostalgia wins out on this occasion, and we order a bunch of favourites. The more snacky style food and sandwiches appear to be designated for the front bar section, but our friendly waiter allows us to pick and mix from the menus to our hearts content. A mention here, as we’re hungrily awaiting our order, has to be made to the huge plates of fried chicken and crispy duck that keep emerging from the kitchen, smelling AMAZING and looking proper fit.
Any doubts that Rita may have lost her roots are mollified when our chicken bun is brought out, classic stylee, in a brown paper bag emblazoned with her tramp stamp. The sandwich itself is better than ever; tender chicken fried crispy and juicy on a bed of shredded lettuce and mayo in the most beautiful little chewy sourdough bun. Our patty melt is again perfection perfected; I dread to think how much butter was involved in the frying of the sandwich but it adds golden deliciousness to every bite, oooooooozing with ghetto cheese and bulging with juicy burger, my only complaint is that it could do with a counterpoint to all that richness, we ask for a little pot of sriracha ketchup to dunk into.
Deep fried cheese comes with a warning from our waiter that gleans excitement from me and a look of fear from my companion. Bring. It. On. Probably a good thing we share actually as it’s a full-on gooey triangle filled, and running away, with smelly brie, the little mounds of shaved fennel salad and kimchi are most welcome and balance the pungency nicely. A side of crispy fried crushed potatoes is a massive bowl of carby joy; skin on crunchy spuds dribbling with sour cream and herbs. We’re in equal parts relieved and dismayed that our order of chicken wings is forgotten.
Relieved. Yes, definitely relieved, as our desserts are brought to our table. Pie is tempting, ice cream sandwich gets a maybe next time nod, but there’s no way I’m not ordering the Dulce De Leche Beignets with Foie Gras. No way. Nope. And we’re not sharing, though I might suggest you do, as we’re both equally alarmed at the size of this dish. Expecting something a touch more dainty than the two full size doughnut-like torpedoes suddenly before us, looming over an acutely decadent puddle of sauce. The beignets are mercifully light actually and we make silent pigs of ourselves as we scoop up every last sticky sweet scrap of dip. Having ordered a negroni off menu, our waiter is just as unfazed with our martini order next, feeling we need something potent (pure gin *cough*) to help open up our sweet bellies. We waddle out, already looking forward to brunch.
So, just a few days later, we return amidst Hackney mayhem and the devastating news that Raw Duck is to be demolished, just minutes up the road, due to structural crisis.
A genius Fernet Kola concoction hits just the right note for this session, a Marmite-like ingredient that I love; deeply herbal with cooling mint undertones, it’s a weird and wonderful combination. With chicken and waffles out of the picture for our, admittedly on the late side, reservation, we browse the other options, determined this time to deviate from old favourites. My friend’s hock hash with duck egg looks just the thing, but it’s my miso butter scrambled eggs on muffin, accessorised with a highly unnecessary side of crispy bacon, that’s the surprise brunch win. A buttery, eggy mess flops across the loveliest toasted muffin that tastes suspiciously home-made with it’s tell-tale sourdoughy bubbly crust and chew. It’s the addition of miso and sesame to the scramble that elevates the dish far beyond the pedestrian and makes for an intensely delicious, satisfying, and highly aromatic, brunch.
Rita’s new joint may be a collaboration, with Gabriel Price and Andrew Clarke in the kitchen and Jackson Boxer flitting between here and Brunswick House, but make no mistake, this feels like Missy Flynn’s lair, stomping her girly, biker boot clad foot, she reigns supreme over her battenburg and blancmange pink, fried chicken castle.