Imagine scoring a date with Nigella. A lady so incomparable, she doesn’t need a last name. An incorrigible sexpot, Mrs Beeton meets Barbarella. A Renaissance woman, knowledgeable about both Le Creuset and weed. A chef so insatiably smutty, she can thrust innuendo even into a segment on dairy. I can picture her winking to camera while fondling manchego and coquettishly cooing about “the saltiness of the cheese”.
Imagine that, despite not being a millionaire, you have convinced this Botticellian goddess to spend an hour sitting across a table from you. And then, imagine the panic: where the hell are you going to go?
Of course, you avoid Scott’s. Who is so unimaginative that they rehash the places someone went with their ex? In fact, I’d swerve anywhere Nigella has ever heard of. You need a little unhackneyed joint, somewhere novel yet unpretentious, where the food is good enough to impress someone who thinks nothing of whipping up a chocolate cake before lunch.
Clever Ronan Bennett, then, who recently bagged an evening with Nigella on what we are told was Definitely Not a Date, and took her to My Neighbours the Dumplings — or MNTD, as its trendy regulars probably say.
MNTD is in Clapton, part of east London beyond the pop circus of Shoreditch, edgy enough that on the walk over you can still enjoy the quivering thrill that someone might nick your phone. On a street outside, the air is electric blue with police lights and sweet puffs of smoke spiralling from gangs of boys in doorways.
A family-run restaurant, MNTD was started by a young couple — Kristian Leontiou and Becky Wharton — who live nearby. It mixes recipes that Wharton’s Chinese mum cooked with ideas from chefs they worked with. To call it pan-Asian sounds horrendously 1990s and way too showy for what just seems like a good excuse to serve Japanese sake with dim sum and other Chinese-, Vietnamese- and Korean-inspired dishes on a menu where the main theme is Asian comfort food.
You could be sarcastic about the hipster interior — and yes, there is exposed ducting, a lot of reclaimed wood and gold-brushed, distressed walls — but MNTD is still shabbily beautiful in a way that doesn’t feel shop-bought. Downstairs is a red-lit sake lounge with sofas, where you can wait for a table. It’s far too laid-back here to book.
The restaurant seems arranged to suggest a fantasy courtyard just off a backstreet in old Beijing, with a washing line of tiny kimonos strung overhead and coloured paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Long wooden tables are candlelit by huge old sake bottles, dripping wax. (Important date note: anyone would look good in this light.) On my table, in black marker someone has scrawled “JB 4 RS” into the grain. (Yes, I was disappointed that it wasn’t “RB 4 NL”, too.)
Hip-hop hums along with Nina Simone and it smells faintly of cabbage — but don’t let that put you off. Instead, be seduced by clouds puffing from the open kitchen, plumes of steam from wooden dumpling pallets.