Some balls are held for charity, and some for fancy dress. But when they’re held for pleasure, they’re the balls I like best.
I’ve not actually been to the Bowler meatball pop-up, but their flagrant misuse of perfectly innocuous AC/DC lyrics demonstrates an infallible truth about meaty balls: you can’t discuss them without turning into Frankie Howerd. From Euan Ferguson’s innuendos to Marina O’Loughlin’s “fnarr”s, every discussion of meatballs must start with a double entendre.
I went out to teste two places in East London, Meatballs of Farringon and Giant Robot of Clerkenwell, passing by the St Pauls campsite on the way up. Enough’s been said about this place over the last fortnight, but I did particularly like the despondent Monopoly man, and the picture of Che Guevara outside Starbucks (which was full of protesters).
Giant Robot is one of those totally laid-back ‘n’ funky diners full, on my visit, of post-work boozers and groups of birthday girls getting hammered to background synth pop that insists “if you like your lunch Italian, your brunch American, your dinner relaxed and your beer and cocktails icy cold, you’ll love Giant Robot.” Pause. New paragraph. “You’ll also love our balls.”
I got my mash puréed, my tomato sauce underseasoned, and my balls steaming. Meatballs & Mash (beef balls, spicy tomato sauce, pecorino for £6.95, although you can get yer balls for a pretty bargainous £1.35 each) was fine: a piping hot, relatively bland evocation of childhood meals for a decent price, the beef balls slightly rare, crumbly spheres that shone among their accompaniments. I was on my own, drinking free cucumber-infused tap water by the weak flame of a tea light, alone. Time to move on.
On the way out I noticed another catchphrase on the menu that made my heart sink: “You’re not in LA so no substitutions please”. If there’s one thing London’s restaurants could do with, it’s a bit of LA friendliness and flexibility. You’d expect to play by the owner’s rules in a rural Italian trattoria; in a major capital city you should be able to demand what you want, when you want, how you want.
Meatballs takes Robot’s free glass of water and raises them a full jug, plus a little warm crunchy toast slice spread with tapenade. It’s a great way to start the evening as you relax into wooden booths and take in the Quality Chop House’s Grade 1 listed features, its chequerboard floor and oppresive wooden window panels. Seduced by the low woozy tone of a saxophone thrumming under the sound of corks popping and convivial chat, I picked out a blueberry gin and tonic (a Hades red concoction packing fresh berries and a medium alcohol kick) and went hog wild on another affordable menu.
Before long, my balls dropped. The first three were beef and ricotta with tomato sauce, dense, ample cojones of minced, pressed protein (much harder than Giant Robots’ balls) that offered only a minor threat of cheesiness. As the background sax gave way to a tinkling piano, Greek lamb balls with a cucumber, dill and yoghurt sauce rolled forth, a relatively benign bundle overpowered by its sauce. Pork and rosemary with a parmesan cream was much better, as was a crunchy side of peas with lettuce, spring onions and (more) cream – a dish here served warm, which was unexpected but worked. Our unseen DJ, meanwhile, had moved on to ‘Come Fly With Me’, which for a wet Wednesday in London was a bit much.
Meatballs are also associated with auterity – making do and mending, last night’s ingredients turned into today’s treat, last year’s city-wide move towards Meatball Monday to fill empty restaurants – and I for one am loving the cheap, small plate invasion.
Giant Robot Price Per Head: £7.82
Meatballs Price Per Head: 16