“Mac n cheese sushi style”?
Er… what the hell is that?
Well, for one thing, it’s a menu item guaranteed to cause sharp intake of breath amongst those convinced that classics must never be meddled with and that twists and fusions are an abomination… But I think life’s too short to be too narrow-minded and proscriptive about food so I was very intrigued by this dish and many others on the menu.
When a journalist and blogger friend tweeted that he was dining in Watford’s self-described “best restaurant”, I confess I stifled a giggle. I’m actually a big fan of Watford but in my (not exhaustive) experience, much of the culinary landscape consists of boring chains, ranging from the awful through to the mediocre and acceptable but seldom showcasing greatness. The independents aren’t a great deal better on the whole, though there are exceptions such as the gem that is Grandpa’s Sushi in Watford Market (review soon) and Taste of Lahore on the High Street.
Details soon emerged and I was even more surprised to learn that my friend was talking about Rodell’s, just a minute’s walk from my previous office and maybe 2 or 3 from my current one. Not surprised because I’d been there myself or because I’d heard anything about it (good or bad) but because I didn’t even realise it was a restaurant!
It turns out that Rodell’s has had quite a varied history: Back in the 1960′s, two business partners named their new haberdashery shop by combining their family names, Rodriguez and Martell. José Rodriguez was current owner Mario Tavares’ uncle and the property passed to Mario via his mother who took over in the 1970s. She diversified Rodell’s into a general corner shop to sell groceries, cigarettes and confectionery. Her daughter, Mario’s sister, helped evolve the business again by introducing sandwiches and catering for local offices.
In 2004 it was Mario’s turn. After an exciting and successful career spanning both performance and production of music, TV, arts and digital animation, Mario wanted to focus instead on his love of great food and cooking, especially the many cuisines he’d picked up travelling the world for work and pleasure.
Mario converted Rodell’s into an organic deli, serving breakfast and lunch to the local area. His simple no-menu approach was ahead of its time — think how popular no-choice menus have become today, both in underground restaurants and commercial ones. With the lack of menus and signs in the window, and it being closed when I passed by early morning and at the end of the working day, I had no inkling that the shop was actually a hive of activity during the day!
However, as many business owners found, the recession started to bite and in 2009 Mario closed shop. It was not until 2011 that he re-launched, this time as a bar and restaurant, with the intention of creating a vibrant and friendly community hub.
Downstairs, a bar sits to one side of the small room, exposed brick and wooden floors creating a warm inviting little space. Particularly popular are the two draft taps, not for beer but for Prosecco! Mario was one of the first in the UK to install these.
Staff are friendly and the three we chatted to during the evening clearly share our love for great food and drink.
Upstairs are two dining rooms, also simply styled. Pale wooden tables and walls make the most of the light flooding in from huge windows. A mix of old and modern furnishings and knick knacks give a touch of homeliness. Mario’s favourite films are projected onto one wall – Hairspray and Pink Panther during our meal. Also playing is a music tape, quite unrelated to the films, which makes for some surreal moments.
Mario explains that he’s not a trained chef but has learned from many different sources and in many different places. His menu is essentially a very eclectic and constantly changing mix of sharing plates and he is not constrained by notions of what goes with what. Instead he makes what he likes to cook and eat, confident that others will too.
A born host, Mario tells us how he wants his customers to help him shape what Rodell’s is to them. In return, customers quickly become regulars; some from just around the corner and some from further afield.
He’s one of those genuine happy people it’s impossible not to warm to immediately. His giggle actually is infectious, clichéd though that may sound.
A childhood in the Philippines meant he learned to love great food at a young age. Since then he’s lived and travelled all around the world and found more delicousness in each place.
So, what about the food?
I can see how some might be alarmed by the way the menu meanders right around the world from dish to dish. Surely Malaysian should be served with Malaysian, Chinese with Chinese, Spanish with Spanish? Bah humbug to that suggestion – I relish the eccentric menu and am happy to trot the globe with my palate.
Savoury bread and butter pudding (£4.50) is served with a small cup of thin soup. The soup is OK but the pudding is magnificent – imagine crispy light layered puff pastry top and bottom, around a melting savoury cheesy custard interior, with a little pesto slathered on top. Yeah!
Dry spicy Cajun ribs (£8) are so big I wonder if they come from a dino-pig. The quality of the pork is evident as they are tender, tasty and with a beautiful thick layer of fat. The cajun spice rub has a kick!
Fritto misto (£6) is the weakest dish, for me. I’m just not convinced that it works with such tiny pieces of seafood and I definitely don’t like mussels served this way, though I like them in other recipes. I’d also suggest serving it with aioli alongside, such as the one served with the chicken.
Spanish pollo ajillo (£6) (garlic chicken) wings are served piping hot, superbly tender and juicy on the inside with a crisp exterior; perfect dipped in the aioli provided.
Lemon prosecco risotto (£6) divides us. We both agree it has great flavour, but I find it far too dry and stodgy. Pete likes it but I much prefer a looser, more liquid risotto.
Malay beef rending (£8) is fantastic! It has a superb balance of flavours, the meat is as soft as you could hope for and the heat is enough to make itself known but not so hot it masks the rest. My only comment would be that for £8 the portion is small given that no rice or bread comes alongside. A flaky roti canai would go down a treat and make it better value too.
And finally I want to tell you about that mac n cheese sushi style (£8). Macaroni tubes are neatly (dare I say obsessively?) arranged and glued together by a cheese sauce, then breadcrumbed, fried and served in slices that resemble rolled sushi. To my surprise, the cheese sauce is liquidy soft and melting – I can’t imagine how the slices don’t disintegrate into a slop on the plate! I often hear people claiming that there is nothing new under the sun and that any real twist to a classic worth trying has been tried already. This dish proves them wrong because it’s bloody genius and even if I hadn’t fallen for any other dish I’d go back for this alone.
You can see we ordered seven dishes between us but five or six would have been plenty, as we started hungry but finished so full we could hardly roll ourselves back down the stairs.
As well as the prosecco there’s a nice range of fairly priced soft and alcoholic drinks. And Mario’s just converted some outside space into a little drinking and eating deck, perfect in the current heatwave.
What do you think, abomination or genius? Or do you need to try it for yourself to decide?
Kavey Eats were guests of Rodell’s.