Among my colleagues and friends, debate has been raging about Martello Hall since it opened. And while it might be the case that none of us has anything better to do with our time than argue about a pub, it does touch on some issues and controversies that have come to define the borough in the imaginations of many. Gentrification. Authenticity. Hipsters. Pizza. Pizza.
Those last two might be a little out of place, for which I apologise. But you see, my primal lizard-brain can now only think of food when I hear Martello Hall, because said food is (spoiler coming here) absolutely fantastic.
Sure, the slick Martello Hall replaces the beloved old London Fields Pub – a much more traditional, cheaper Mare Street boozer stymied by the familiar wail of NIMBY noise complaints that have already silenced several of this country’s pubs and live music venues. (Noise? On Mare Street? My monocle almost fell out.)
And sure, the place is kitted out with a bizarre mish-mash of decor that I can only describe as ‘steamboat steampunk meets torture-porn movie set meets things we found in a scrapyard and polished.’
But for all this, their Italian food with Mediterranean infections is undeniable. The highlight of my evening was the pizza, the best I’ve had in Hackney. Martello offers nine from £8 to £15, but on the recommendation of our server (the staff here are uniformly excellent and knowledgeable, by the way) we went for the Smokey Bandit – smoked pancetta & potato, truffle pecorino, mozzarella, lemon and sage. Each slice (you’re administered with a pizza cutter and so these can be as big or small as you want, and you’ll want ‘big’) has a subtle smokiness alongside the freshness and depth of flavour of, weirdly, a perfect risotto. Generous amounts of tarragon round out the dish and bring the pancetta to life. The potato is lost but the cheeses are present in all their splendour.
Our other main indulgence was the 12 hour beef short ribs with kimchi, chilli and lemon. When pulled apart, they emanate what is possibly the loveliest smell Mare Street has borne witness to ever (not a crowded field.) The coleslaw-esque side adds little, but nothing could detract from the unctuous, tender slab in the middle of the plate. Without any marinate or sauce, ribs are ribs, and these are a perfectly slow-cooked example.
On the side, we opted for the salty zing of padron peppers as well as some torta fritta (scraps of fried pizza dough served with good salame and hefty chunks of parmesan.) The sharing menu has a preponderance of meat and fish (buttermilk chicken, smoked mackerel, even a Scotch egg made with North African sausage merguez) but for vegetarians, dishes showcasing artichoke and heritage tomatoes are on hand. Drinks-wise, Martello Hall distills its own gin (with a helping hand from Bow’s East London Liquor Company) but we opted for beer – this isn’t a place for hardcore beer snobs but both the Five Points Brewery IPA and the Martello Lager offering a refreshing quality that will come into its own in the summer. Wine is available on tap (a more environmentally friendly way of doing things) and their gin finds its way into many a cocktail. The Hazelnut Espresso Martini sounds particularly grand.
Martello Hall does appear to be trying to engage with people beyond what many would call their target market: those moving into the swanky new apartments next door. They sell sausage roll by the inch, and are trying to get freelancers through the door with fast wifi and bottomless coffee. One feels, however, that in this case the way to Hackney’s heart is through its stomach.