Michael Deacon reviews Ella Canta, London: 'The pork was obscenely tender. 
It practically swooned on to my fork'

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Ella Canta restaurant dining room
A modern Mexican 
menu serves up 
a few surprises Credit: Jasper Fry

One thing I’ll find hard to explain to my son when he’s older: photograph albums. ‘Y’see, lad,’ I’ll have to tell him, for some reason in the voice of an elderly Yorkshireman, ‘when I were your age, people hardly ever took photographs. Birthdays, Christmas, holidays, visits from your grandparents. That was pretty much it.

‘And even when you did take a photo, you couldn’t look at it straight away, to check how it looked. First, you had to wait till you’d used up this thing called “the film”, which might take months. And then, when “the film” was finally finished, you’d have to go to a branch of Boots to get it “developed”, which would take weeks. And then, after all that time, the lady at Boots would hand over your photos – and you’d find that every single one seemed to be a selfie by an enormous earthworm. And then you’d realise that you’d had your finger over the lens, and all the pictures were completely ruined.

‘Sometimes, though, as many as half the pictures would come out all right. In which case, you’d place them delicately in a big, serious-looking book called a “photograph album”, carefully stow it away in a drawer, and then never look at it again.’

To my son, this will be baffling. But in my lifetime alone, our relationship with photography has changed utterly. In 1980, the year I was born, an estimated total of 25 billion photos were taken. That averages out at around five photos a year for everyone on earth at that time. In 2017, by contrast, we’re estimated to have taken 1.2 trillion. That’s an increase of 4,700 per cent.

When I was growing up, it was unthinkable that someone in a restaurant would pull out a camera and take a photo of their dinner (perhaps to show their friends about four months later). Yet now people do it all the time. Younger people, anyway. Frankly, it’s a bit undignified in anyone over 25, and even more undignified if you do it somewhere grand and Michelin-starry.

Seriously: actual grasshoppers. Mexicans eat them. 
And now I had to

Which is why I’m embarrassed to admit that I do it myself. At least I have an excuse: I need to be able to remember what each dish looks like, so I can describe it in my review. But the trouble is, no one else in the restaurant knows that I’m a reviewer. So, as I awkwardly take out my phone and snap away, I feel my cheeks prickle with shame, imagining what older diners must be thinking.

‘Darling, why does that man in his late 30s keep taking photographs of his food with a mobile telephone, in 
the manner of someone two decades younger?’

‘Well, I couldn’t say for certain, dear, but I would imagine that he’s some kind of congenital moron.’

‘Yes, I did wonder.’

I felt I could get away with it in this week’s restaurant, Ella Canta in London, because although it’s flash and expensive, it also feels quite young and unstuffy. And anyway, I doubt anyone could see me do it, because the place was so extraordinarily low-lit. My friend said that, as a woman, she loves low-lit restaurants – not because they’re romantic, but because nobody can tell if her eyeliner’s smudged or she’s got a spot. On the other hand, 
she did get lost on the way back from the loo.

Guacamole with ricotta, pomegranate – 
and gold grasshoppers – at Ella Canta Credit: Haarala Hamilton

The food is Mexican. We started with guacamole, fresh and chunky, with creamy ricotta, an occasional juicy burst of pomegranate, a low simmering tingle of spice… oh, and a pair of gold grasshoppers. Seriously: actual grasshoppers, spray-painted gold. Mexicans really do eat them. And now I had to, as well. I felt like a contestant on I’m 
a Celebrity… As it turned out, though, the grasshoppers weren’t that bad: crunchy, in a frail, gauzy kind of way.

Also among the starters were tangy salmon tostadas, and an exotically colourful seabass ceviche, served with a scoop of sangrita sorbet and decorated with leaves cut prettily into the shape 
of butterflies.

Next, we tried three mains, all of which were excellent. Soft-shell crab, scraped into tacos with pineapple purée, giving it a bright, fruity edge. Then more seabass, to be heaped on to little round ‘tortillas’ of cabbage for added crunch. My favourite, though, was the slow-roasted pork, served with tortillas (actual ones this time) and a nice zingy mayo. The pork itself was outrageously, even obscenely tender. 
It practically swooned on to my fork.

Pork carnitas with chile de árbol salsa Credit: Jasper Fry

The only dishes I wasn’t so keen on were the puddings. On the menu they sounded good, in particular the 
one enigmatically named ‘Maria, la Mexicana llega a Londres’ (Maria the Mexican comes to London). ‘Maria,’ explained our Mexican waitress, was ‘an expression of femininity’. Goodness. What was it, or rather she, like?

‘It depends what mood Maria is in.’

I was half-excited, half-frightened. But then somewhat disappointed when Maria turned out to be some fairly unremarkable cheesecake, sprinkled with flower petals. Still, I preferred her to the churros: thick ugly coils of sugary doughnut, for dipping in chocolate.

Mostly, though, the food at Ella Canta is very good. And, with its spray-painted gold grasshoppers and butterfly-shaped leaves, no one can blame you for taking photos.