Lita, London: ‘I’m in heavenly raptures over the cooking’ – restaurant review

<span>Terms of endearment: inside at Lita. The word is a short form of the Spanish word Abuelita, meaning grandma.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Terms of endearment: inside at Lita. The word is a short form of the Spanish word Abuelita, meaning grandma.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Lita, 7-9 Paddington Street, London W1U 5QH (020 8191 2928). Small plates £12-£29, sharing dishes £38-£160, desserts £8-£16, wines from £54

When I die, a moment keenly anticipated by certain chefs, I want the team that did the interiors at Lita in Marylebone to knock up my coffin. Because darling, the joinery! It’s an orgy of tongue and groove, dovetail and pocket. They haven’t stinted on the finish either. There’s a soft gloss and polish to the place that would, I think, lend a comely glow to my corpse in repose. There are even dainty net curtains behind the frosted windows set into the toilet cubicle doors. What do you mean, why did they put windows in the toilet cubicle door? If there weren’t windows, how could they put net curtains behind them? Do keep up. Anyway, I fancy a bit of that, too: maybe a little window in the casket’s lid, with a net curtain to dissuade the gawkers. And some toiletries by Aesop.

You get the point. Lita, which is a shortening of Abuelita, a Spanish term of endearment for your grandma, sells itself as a sweet neighbourhood bistro. And it is, much as Buckingham Palace is a convenient townhouse and Hannah Waddingham can carry a tune. Everything about it bellows heft and investment, however demurely executed. The open kitchen is built around a live fire grill, as if dear old Lita has just nipped over to Regent’s Park to gather firewood with which to cook your dinner. The pass in that open kitchen is an island made of wood, a stab at pretending this is a place that majors in the simple and the domestic.

Naturally enough, there is a section of the menu dedicated to grilling hunks of animal, because really this is a family barbecue: a kilo of Peak District T-Bone; 1.2kg of Galician cow. We get a speech at the start about how the chef has perfected the grilling of a whole turbot. In a town overrun by smoke-cured men, and it is mostly men, furiously grilling whole fish as if it will keep their testosterone levels up, that’s quite the claim to make.

To get the measure of the place, however, ignore those dishes. Look instead at what’s on offer above. Irish chef Luke Ahearne previously ran the kitchen at Luca and most recently was head chef at Corrigan’s. He’s not some humble grill jockey. Consider what he’s done to pan con tomate. Two high-rise squares of springy, oily bread come heaped with a thick, garlicky dice of tomato flesh, draped with two fat Cantabrian anchovies, as if they’ve simply passed out from the joy of it all. Any veteran of the Spanish tapas repertoire may well be livid at what reads like the pointless elevation of the already perfect. And sure, there is a touch of gilding of the well-polished lily. Except, by God, each piece is a brilliant mouthful: salty, sweet umami-rich tomatoes, the bare-knuckle punch of the anchovies, the toasty bread beneath. It’s a metropolitan, deluded take on the humble beach life.

Next come a couple of fat, glistening sardine fillets, lightly smoked so that they occupy that transitional state between raw and cooked, and topped with the finest dice of vinegared shallots and parsley. They are surrounded by puddles of the best olive oil into which the dressing has leaked. At which point you must order slabs of their sourdough and drifts of the salty whipped butter, because none of those noble liquids should go to waste. You’ll very much need the bread for the thumb-thick morels with wild garlic, the green of a Devonshire hillside, draped in ghostly thin slices of lardo, like a bride’s veil. And is that veal jus pooling around? Some may find it an infuriating dish: morels and honking wild garlic make for a perfect vegetarian moment. But hey, have it with essence of pig and baby cow as well. Obviously, this is an outrage. It’s a delicious outrage.

But there is also a salad of white and green asparagus, fresh garden peas, and podded new season broad beans with, perched on the top like a sporting trophy, a poached duck egg, ready to leak its yolk. It’s a cliché of an English spring dish; the only thing to do with a cliché is to take it very seriously indeed, which is exactly what this does. It’s the best of ingredients, shown a very good time. We have silk-soft linguine, heaped with plump mussels, cockles and clams pulled from their shells and bound together with a thick butter sauce, then seasoned by a huge grating of bottarga. Against all this lightness and sunshine, comes roasted quail with grilled duck hearts and slices of caramelised pear, which feels almost autumnal.

Sitting in my cosy booth, on the rust-coloured banquette, I am completely besotted by all of this. I even enjoy the parade of suited-and-booted floor staff who tell us how “amazing” everything is, because I really can’t disagree. You will notice, however, that I’ve failed to mention something. I thought it might be fun for once to visit one of these flash new London openings, hold forth on the aesthetics, swoon where appropriate, and not once consider the price of it all, just as my so-called rival critics do. It’s just dinner and this is what it costs. But look, those dovetail joints don’t come cheap. The two mouthfuls of tomato bread are £9. The two sardine fillets are £12, and all the other dishes are mostly in the mid to high £20s. The cheapest wine is a picpoul at £54. Oh, and that 1.2kg piece of Galician moo is £160. If you’re looking at the portion size of the small plates and wrinkling your nose, I get it. We’re in dainty territory here.

But perhaps just accept the price tag as the way of the disfigured world and save your fury for the £15 Amalfi lemon meringue pie, which isn’t. Because a heap of biscuit crumb on a plate topped with lemon mousse and torched meringue is not a pie. And please don’t give me a speech on the intriguing tropes of deconstruction. It’s annoying. Especially when the rhubarb and vanilla cream millefeuille makes it plain that you really can do pastry. But even I recognise that, having been in such heavenly raptures over the cooking here, the outrage is performative, like slagging something off is in my job description. If Lita is anyone’s grandma, she’s dressed in Chanel, wearing sunglasses like hubcaps and sipping Leclerc Briant Rosé Extra Brut. And it suits her damn well. All things considered, forget the coffin. Just inter me here.

News bites

Let’s start, as is sadly the custom at the moment, with news of two high profile closures. Monica Galetti, the former senior sous chef at Le Gavroche who made her name as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals, has announced that she is shutting Mere, the restaurant she launched with her sommelier husband, David, seven years ago. And it’s also farewell to Park Row, the multimillion-pound restaurant themed around the DC comics world of Batman and Superman, which only opened in 2021 close to Piccadilly Circus. In November, it rebranded as a Japanese restaurant called the Iceberg Lounge, but clearly that change didn’t save it.

The company behind the cult Manchester café and bakery Gooey, has launched a crowdfunder to raise £60,000 needed to open a new pasta restaurant called Onda, on the city’s Oxford Road. They plan to open next month. Everyone who contributes will get discounted vouchers to the restaurant, alongside other perks including tiramisu trays and access to pasta workshops. Learn more here.

Murger Han, the Xi’an restaurant in London’s Elephant & Castle, has launched a weekend brunch menu available every Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 3pm. At the heart of the menu is a Chinese tasting set, which includes scallion pancakes, congee, meat-stuffed steamed buns, panfried chicken dumplings, a black tea spiced egg and pickles for £12.99 (

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