A literal and metaphoric hidden gem, Fin and Lorcan Spiteri’s new venture is a sensation for those in the know.
After a leisurely wander along the Regent’s Canal trying to find the place, we are guided by Ella the local cat along a bobbing pontoon to Rose the boat. The culinary fairytale begins here.
Saying a reluctant farewell to Ella, we descend into a converted double-size Dutch barge. Not a hint of industrialist smut is left in the intimate space.
Two rows of four-person tables are arranged neatly in the hull. White table cloths and Edison bulbs with conical little lampshade hats create a romantic and sub-aquatic feel. The use of a Castleton bluey-green contrasted with a pearl white? Clever, clever colours indeed!
With Fin a cocktail consultant, I am surprised to see only three on the menu. Along with a selective food offering, this is quality over quantity taken a step further. Will there soon be only one dish and one drink in the city’s swishest restaurants?
My Paper Chaser arrives in a frozen glass (a simple but lovely touch). It’s a pink, lemon, Aperol, blood orange triumph, and with every drink sold, £1 goes to the Cook for Ukraine campaign, a cause everyone can raise a glass too.
My partner’s rum and coke is so far from the warm sugary drink served at your local pub, it’s hard to vocalise. In a glass with an impossibly thin rims sits a square ice cube, and around it a thick, viscous brown liquid with only the merest hint of coca-cola and a predominance of that chest-banging spirit, rum. Who needs more of a selection when what is offered is this good? Dancing well under £10, it’s criminal how good these beverages are.
Relaxing in the toasty atmosphere, we take the evening at the pace set by Caravel, utterly unhurried. Prosciutto ham and pickled things arrive along with a very posh hash brown – sorry, potato rösti – crowned with a diamond of sour cream and caviar, tempting you to ask for more. We resist, just.
Starters take their time but this gives us a moment to luxuriate and make goo-goo eyes at one another. Isn’t it interesting how restaurants can bring out emotions in us? Screaming at each other in a fast food restaurant? Totally fitting. But Caravel demands lively discussions with friends or starry-eyed whispers and lingering hand caresses.
Enough with the restaurant table psychology, we’re here to talk about food and food we will discuss.
Starters, in descending order of greatness.
Prawn toast, chilli and lime dip, so good it makes you despise all the takeaway versions you’ve ever allowed to touch your lips. Thick and laden with tender crustacean flesh, breaded and battered and bejewelled with sesame seeds that provide a crunch most thunderous. Two slices are gone in seconds.
A chicken liver pâté, featherweight and kingly with brioche cooked with a crunchy outer layer – delightful to grind under your incisors.
Lastly, a duck croquette, equally crunchy but lacking the richness of the celebrated bird. The clumps could have been any other fowl and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Even the wild garlic aioli can’t save it.
A recommended Embrujo Verdejo swoops in, and this white wine pairs perfectly with the subtlety of my white crab and fennel tagliatelle. The whole effect is an understated sea-drenched, lemon-infused trip of the light fantastic, more like the calmest waltz than a fiery tango. The not-too-dry wine enhances the coy crabbiness of the main.
Across from me sits the steaming pressed lamb, with sprouting broccoli and anchovy sauce. The meat is soft and malleable and the greens are firm, with a creamy complex anchovy. A homecoming of warmth and feeling. A comforting log of joy with a kick of the ocean.
A surprise star is the side of spring greens with chilli and garlic. Seeped in oil, they sit glistening like gems of pure starlight. Fresh and Asian-inspired, they typify what this restaurant does so well, transforming classic European fare into something smart but not showy. Nothing in the menu is gimmicky, in the knowledge that the space needs no extra theatricality and the cooking needs no unnecessary frills.
The open plan and light-flooded kitchen at the end of the boat serves as an altar to the god of gluttony and the devotion of cooking. It’s a church I’m happy to pray at.
We end the evening sharing a plate of jelly, due to my partner’s surprise (after 8 years) aversion to almond tart. Along with the disappointing duck, this is an odd step. It’s a complex, zesty rhubarb glutinous thing, but still unable to break free of the children’s party connotations. I feel like Billy Madderson is about to steal my Pokemon cards any second.
A Rose negroni is the perfect digestif, served controversially in a rounded glass. We watch the waiters carry trays of them down the aisle, bright florescent circles of orange-red, like individual trapped sunsets.
The chatter of happy, well-fed people bounces around the metal mantle of the boat, as we let our newly acquired ballast settle.
Caravel has put its own decidedly English stamp on Italian and French cuisine, a petite but perfectly formed offering. This ruby is well worth the expense, with most dishes sitting well under the £20 mark. The portion sizes will require some wallet-based gymnastics though.
The only issue I can see? Falling into the dark cold waters of the canal after a few too many glowing orange globes. Beware the pontoon, dear reader, as Ella won’t dive in after you!
For more information, visit thestudiokitchen.co.uk/the-boat.