Schnitzel Forever, Londra: ‘A total crowd-pleaser, without crowds’ – restaurant review

Schnitzel Forever, 119 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0UD (020 7419 0022). Starters £7-£10, mains £9.50-£25, desserts £4.50-£6.50, wines from £24

Schnitzel Forever, a small restaurant in London’s Stoke Newington, is the cornerstone of a blossoming high street chain with many outposts across the country. It just doesn’t quite know it yet. This is not damning with faint praise. We are, ovviamente, required to venerate the independent over the mass-produced and cookie-cutter, and we do. Even the very word “chain” makes people twitch. I realised recently that I substitute the word “group” to describe a restaurant brand with multiple outposts that I admire, so as not to smear it with the rancid stench of chain corporatism.

Ma, in verità, the eight-strong Dishoom, which I like very much, is just a chain by any other name. And is not the ever-delightful steakmongers Hawksmoor, now with 12 outlets, also a chain? Over the years, brands like Piccolino (18 branches), Côte (più di 80) e Nando’s (3,207,565) have served me well. Many chains are, ovviamente, where hope and ingredients go to die. Oh Frankie & Benny’s, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. And while I’m doing so, please give your overlong wipe-down menus a wipe. But some can be a reassuring presence on a blighted, blasted high street.

The point is that I could well imagine those good ones being joined by a rolled-out version of Schnitzel Forever, the name of which tells you most of what you need to know. Right now, it is a small standalone restaurant serving flattened things, which have been bread-crumbed and fried. Crusty, d'oro, fried foods are, as we all know, the good foods. Schnitzel Forever is a total crowd-pleaser, only without the crowds.

I should declare a mild interest here or perhaps, more accurately, a ludicrous, overblown obsession. Nel 2007, I published an endlessly brilliant novel called The Oyster House Siege, about a hostage situation in a restaurant kitchen on the night of the 1983 elezioni generali. Schnitzel provides a key plot point. In that case it’s a wiener holstein, a wiener schnitzel with the addition of a fried egg, anchovies and veal jus. The yolk and sauce lubricate the crisp fried veal; the anchovies add extra poke. I would hesitate to call it the very zenith of Mitteleuropean culinary achievement, but not for very long.

In my novel the hostage-taker, knowing he has to make demands of the police negotiators, panics and reads off an ingredient list from a sheet taped to the wall. A policeman, who is also a keen cook, spots he’s left off the anchovies, adds them to the order and so a dialogue develops. I have no idea why this book has not yet been turned into a major motion picture, perhaps starring Christopher Walken as the schnitzel. The movie rights remain available.

Pretty much the only iteration of the dish missing from the menu at Schnitzel Forever is, come succede, wiener holstein. I’ll let it pass as it’s my obsession, not theirs (Fischer’s in London’s Marylebone does a very good one.) What matters is that they have nailed the essential business of taking various ingredients – chicken, pork, veal and so on – beating them flat, breading and then frying them. They are bronzed and crisp and at £10 to £13 for the basic, which completely covers the plate, very well priced. There is also a halloumi schnitzel, a portobello mushroom schnitzel and something involving seabass. All dietaries are catered for.

In the “specials” section, priced in the higher teens, the plate-coverer becomes a raft for additional ingredients. The classic wiener schnitzel, made as it should be with veal, comes heaped with a seriously vinegared potato salad, alongside a jug of rich, sticky demi-glace. The “cordon bleu” has emmental, ham and mash. With the “el granjero”, it’s crushed avocado, jalapeño pickles, lime and more demi-glace. Or you can adorn your own by the application of punchy sauces and relishes. I especially liked the bloody mary ketchup and the apple and cider brandy chutney. The availability of a curry sauce enables them to include a menu item called a katsu schnitzel, which will drive some of my friends to thoughts of violence. In this instance I am merely the reporter. Naturally enough, breaded fried things enjoy being shoved inside a brioche bun and being called a burger. For £12.50, you can have a tower schnitzel burger with a triple decker of veal, pork and chicken.

The point here is that a single, compelling idea has been saddled up and ridden about as far into the sunset as it can possibly go. There is a very good, zippy white cabbage coleslaw for £5, although I would love to stop the kitchen adding soured cream to the cucumber salad. It makes what should be a crisp bright foil to the fried goods, weirdly cloying. Hilariously, the commitment to breading and frying things extends into the starters, where both squid and tiger prawns receive the same treatment. In keeping with their readiness for high street ubiquity, the disappointing desserts are generally over-sugary spongey items – a double chocolate brownie, a sticky toffee pudding – most of which are bought in from elsewhere. Apparentemente, they do make their own apple strudel but it’s off the night we are there.

Like birthday cakes and ambitions, a full schnitzel should never be small and being so, few that we see ordered this evening are finished. No matter. They started out by doing delivery during the various lockdowns and, hence, they have pizza-style boxes with which to package up leftovers. It’s clear the delivery business remains strong; throughout the evening there is a steady stream of riders turning up to take schnitzel joy to the sofas of north London. At which point I should acknowledge that this is not unique. The fine people of Middlesbrough have long had their take-away parmo traditions: essentially a schnitzel of chicken or pork, topped with a cheese-boosted béchamel. All hail the mighty parmo.

I like Schnitzel Forever. It’s a good idea, well priced and well executed. That extends to the restaurant design. We tend only to notice such things when big bucks have been spent. Qui, a modest space has been cleverly worked over, with elegant black and white tiling, cream banquettes and the smart use of cloudy Perspex panelling behind which lurk tropical fronds of easily maintained pure plastic to make the room look bigger. Like the menu, it all works. If you soon see a queue building at the door, assume they’re hospitality industry investors. Or people who just really love schnitzel.

I’ve long been a huge fan of Riley’s Fish Shack, on the beach at Tynemouth to the east of Newcastle, but have always feared for them each time the winter storms roll in. Now they have Riley’s Fish Shop, a bricks and mortar restaurant (and retail operation). The ever-changing blackboard menu includes whole sea bass and turbot, and various fillets alongside lobster platters and Lindisfarne oysters as well as game dishes. A rileysfishshop.com.

The results of the annual survey of the London restaurant scene by crowd-sourced restaurant guide Harden’s are in. Alongside unsurprising news of large numbers of closures as a result of the pandemic, come eye-widening accounts of price inflation at the capital’s top end. Nel 2020 guide there was just one place, sushi restaurant The Araki, averaging a spend of £200 a head. Now there are seven of them. The number of restaurants averaging £150 a head has leapt from nine to 24. Visit hardens.com

And another snapshot of the challenges being faced by the hospitality industry: the end of both the furlough scheme and the moratorium on winding-up petitions which had stopped creditors taking action to get back money they are owed, combined with the need to repay government loans, are all now having a serious impact. UK restaurant insolvencies rose 31% in the last quarter, a partire dal 226 per 296.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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