Understudy | Shoreditch
Quail egg yolk smoked in hay
Fried Jerusalem artichokes, fermented wild spinach
Twice-cooked eggplant, Georgian walnut sauce, pomegranate.
Char-grilled octopus, blistered shishito peppers, parsley oil
Agrodolce rabbit on sourdough toasts, honeyed pine nuts
Cherries in rose petals, black currant dressing
Bombe glacée miniature – chestnut ice cream, preserved blackberries, semi-sweet chocolate
Winter citrus tart
“Understudy?” Heather read the sign, the word more a question than simple repetition. From underneath her umbrella, she shot Charlie a curious look – pursed lips, creased eyebrows, a tilt up to her chin that put her nose in the air ever so slightly. The very same look she wore while reading through her student’s essay drafts.
The paint had finished drying the morning before as they set up the dining room. Charlie had asked for something unobtrusive but eye catching, and Parijatha had delivered as much as she could while coloring inside the lines. He knew Linnea had put in her two cents on the project. He could see it in the old-fashioned font, the metallic gold offset by flat black and white.
Charlie felt guilty standing there, taking the finished product in. He had wanted this. He had asked for help in getting it put together. He hadn’t expected every one of his friends to make so much time for him; to all but drop everything and devote an undue amount of energy and attention to the little restaurant they’d put together.
Kit had gotten him the place for a song, not having to work all that hard for their parents to bring the rent down – too low, Charlie had argued, but they wouldn’t hear it. They designed him a website, helped Linnea put together a social media plan and automatic post schedule, then overhauled his finance plan without a single error. Linnea had taken more photos of him than Charlie had had taken in his entire life, edited them to perfection, then scheduled them for him. The feed was clean, professional, approachable, even fun – something Charlie had forgotten he could be.
Parijatha and Heather had managed to work around Charlie's money boundaries. They’d sweet-talked, then full-court-pressed him into taking neat checks from the both of them. Charlie hadn’t liked it, but was willing to hold on to them as long as it brought the nagging to an end. At the time, he thought he’d won that battle. He had been fully prepared to pay them back by each of their birthdays whether they liked it or not.
Then the little space had fresh paint on the walls.
Then the walk-in and pantry was stocked. Charlie couldn’t remember placing the order.
Then furniture and new light fixtures had been set up. The other shoe dropped then. When he pressed them about it, their answers had been all but verbal shrugs.
“I believe you’ll find I’ve missed a fair few of your birthdays, Lee,” Parijatha had answered breezily, shooting him a look when Charlie argued that years before they met didn’t count. “A miss is a miss, my dear.”
Heather had jabbed him in the ribs until he couldn’t breathe from laughter. “I’m pulling my seniority card as your oldest friend. You’ll take the money, Lee.” She let him recover before wrapping him in a strong hug. “It came out of what your dad left me. I think he’d want you to have it. If you’re still sore about it, I’ll take repayment in dinners and desserts.”
Charlie had conceded. Those were terms he could be at peace with.
Charlie shrugged one shoulder, glancing down at her. “I dunno. I thought ‘heir and spare’ would be a bit too pointed.” A wry smile crept over his face. “Don’t you think?”
Heather dissolved into a fit giggles, Charlie with her. They took their time recovering, Heather leaning into Charlie side as she caught her breath and he wiped tears from his eyes. She still giggled as Charlie took her by the hand, guiding her inside the door and over to the counter with a view into the kitchen. Parijatha would be arriving soon to play server for whoever darkened the door. Linnea would be coming around to take photos later. Kit was holding down the fort at Casa Inés.
Ezra glanced up from his prep – tasks he had strong-armed away from Charlie – and flashed a mischievous smile.
Ezra, who had helped Charlie write and edit his menus. Ezra, who had helped him develop consistent methods for each dish. Ezra, who had made him coffee when he was frustrated. Who talked him down when he was up in the middle of the night with his nerves. Who had stepped in when it all became too much, promised it was all worth it, and held out hands to pull him back up when he hit the ground.
Ezra, who had argued his way into helping Charlie run Understudy’s kitchen for the first two weeks – probably three if he got his way. Charlie could grudgingly admit he would. He had even conspired with the other four to design and present Charlie with a brand new chef’s coat in clean navy blue, Noether written in soft silver gray script near the collar.
Ezra Southerns, chef proprietor of the over-the-moon successful Casa Inés, dedicated upstart and compassionate humanitarian, who looked at Charlie and saw someone worthwhile. Someone worth investing in, throwing his boundless energy behind, promoting to anyone who’d sit still enough for Ezra’s pitch.
Someone worth loving – patiently, kindly, and without reservations.
Charlie had finally come around to understanding he deserved it.
“Angling for a good seat, Heather?” he called, pulling out his ear buds.
Heather slid into one of the bar chairs, cheeks pink from laughter. “It is opening night and we both heard Kit’s percentages. Didn’t want to take any chances.”
“Smart,” Ezra answered, strolling over to lean his elbows on the counter. He fixed Charlie with his most wicked grin, the one that made his stomach swoop and roll, like he was all of thirteen years old, flooded with his first crush. “Don’t tell Linnea, but this is the real brains in our little posse.”
“Trust me, she doesn’t need reminding,” Charlie shot back, rolling his eyes. He flinched away as Heather made to jab at his ribs. The pair locked eyes, coming to a tacit truce. Charlie had relaxed much since starting over, but Understudy was open for business. He couldn’t bear the thought of his customers seeing him and Heather acting like children.
Ezra snickered. “Ready to get this show on the row, chef?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Charlie pointed to the menu card in front of Heather. “Whatever you want, H. I plan on paying into my debt starting tonight.” He snagged his new coat from behind the counter, shrugging it onto his shoulders as he took a quick walk through the kitchen. Everything was set where he wanted it. Everything was exactly so. Charlie could hardly believe it was his. He could hardly believe Ezra was there with him. “What's there left to do, love?”
“Nothing,” Ezra tossed over his shoulder, slicing into a loaf of bread. “Got it handled.”
“Oh, then I’m definitely telling Kit.”
“You. Wouldn’t. Dare.”
Charlie knew they deserved every note of Heather’s laughter at their expense. Charlie knew it as he started on the eggplant for her. He knew it as he watched Ezra unscrew a bottle of grapefruit soda for her. Watching seat after seat get filled, Charlie started telling himself he knew what he was doing. Things were going to turn out alright.
Understudy: A Fresh, if Jumbled, Start
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Shoreditch’s newest pop-up establishment opened on a rainy Thursday. On an unprepossessing corner on Swanfield Street, Understudy isn’t an obvious choice. Housed in a former gallery space, the place has a quiet, dignified air not unlike the “plain sister” in an Austen novel. It blends into its stretch of the street, melding peacefully with its surroundings.
For some chefs, that combination would not spell success. For Charlie Noether, the chef behind Understudy, it is more than an asset. Formerly sous-chef at Maison Sabourin under his mother, Noether has moved on from his family's soigné establishment. The man is a gracious presence in the dining room, serving many patrons himself. He seems as content to play host to each table as he is reluctant to discuss his departure from Maison. All speculation and gossip aside, Noether seems to be making the most of his departure from fine dining.
It is only when one steps off the pavement, out of the rain, that Understudy's full charm is realized. While not large, it makes the best use of the space it has. A handful of two and four-top tables make up the majority of the dining room, each set up in their own pocket of Edison bulb light.
Some reviewers have preferred seats when they come to restaurants. Some like to be seated where nobody can see them and they can attend to their work of judgment in privacy. Some like to be seated where they can be seen and see everyone else.
For me, there are no bad seats in the house, but there are definitely some very, very good ones. The best seat at Understudy is, without a doubt, one of the fourteen bar stools at the back of the restaurant. From that perch, one can sample well-curated wines while watching Noether toil over a tricked-out hob.
The menu is clearly one built on passion rather than continuity. Each dish is more a stand alone experience than part of a connected thread of flavors. Diners have the option to order dishes a la carte or a pre-fixe menu. The pre-fixe was recommended by the server, and I would agree it is one’s best option for an experience. Each dish is listed simply – “quail egg yolk smoked in hay,” “agrodolce rabbit on sourdough toasts,” “winter citrus tart.” No high-toned naming conventions or gestures towards the classical French training Noether brings with him. The plates themselves are almost completely devoid of adornment. What shows up is precisely what you ordered, on flat black dishes, without much fanfare.
This can make it difficult to grasp the dimension of flavor Noether is putting up with each order. Unassuming appearances can give way to fantastic insides, but nowhere has such a realization been more shocking to me than at Understudy. Very little tells you that you are sitting in one of the most interesting dining rooms the neighborhood as hosted in recent years.
While all this reflection feels like a strike against the place, I assure you it is not. The food is inspired. The wine is well stocked and expertly paired. The service is calm and knowledgeable in the middle of peak dinner rush. There are no hushed instructions on how to get the food from your plate to your mouth, no recitations of ingredients or sources, or any of the other kit we see young chefs trot out nowadays. The place is small, but cozy – the comfortable air of a village pub tucked into busy London and given a Chanel purse. Understudy is the first foray of a chef stretching himself without asking too much of his guests. Unpracticed at being mastermind, yes, but steady in its confidence. He will certainly be one to watch.
Understudy is located on Swanfield Street in Shoreditch, close to the Bethnal Green station. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner and cocktail service (4pm-11pm). Reservations are accepted and can be made through their Instagram page. Recommended: quail egg yolk in hay, preserved cherries in rose petals, twice-cooked eggplant; pre-fixe is £65 per person.
Rating: ⭐️⭐️ Very Good. Critic’s Pick.
Charlie wrenched the cork out of a bottle of Zinfandel, swallowing an indiscriminate mouthful. His sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, his fingers sporting a few cuts from knives that needed sharpening. Parijatha had locked the door twenty minutes before, giving Charlie and Ezra a nod as she went to enter the last tally of receipts into the system Kit insisted on using.
“Am I a coward?” He rolled his neck, feeling something like age in the tops of his shoulders. He tapped uneasy fingertips against the neck of the bottle. They’d been at this for six weeks. Charlie was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Walking away, doing this?”
Ezra’s head popped up from where he was doing inventory at the counter. “Jesus, no. Who told you that?”
“No one. I just…” Charlie rocked back on his heels, motioning to the space around him. “Have a feeling.”
“What kind of feeling?” Brown eyes followed Charlie, studied him closely even as glasses slipped down Ezra’s nose. It left a sanded-down feeling on his skin. As if Ezra could read every fiber of Charlie's anxiety; as if he could just see the residue of his mother's voicemail all over him.
I’m surprised you’re keeping this little tantrum of yours up. You’ve always had a flair for the dramatic Charles, but three months? This might be a new record. Unless, that little snit you had at school about that boy was longer and I’m misremembering. That’s besides the point. None of this business is making you any more innovative and interesting. In case not even Heather has been honest enough to tell you that.
Charlie swallowed hard, his throat tight. “Like I’m doing a big thing badly. And it's going to implode in front of me. And my face’ll get burned.” He runs a rough hand through his hair, trying to shake some of it off him. It worked a bit, though not as much as he would have liked. “Like when a cannonball gets stuck.”
“That’s…” Ezra blinked. He set down his pen, pushed his glasses up his nose. “Vivid."
Charlie sighed. “It’s been in my head all night.”
"Lee, sweetheart?” Charlie felt the pull Ezra had on him. He let it pull, let it guide him until he landed in a chair next to Ezra, elbows propped on the counter and fingers pressing into his temples. Ezra’s hand reached for his wrist, deftly tangling their fingers together. “I have too much confidence. Linnea tells me all the time. You need to borrow some of that because you’re killing the game. People are loving this, loving you and what your big brain comes up with.” Ezra pressed a kiss to the back of Charlie's hand. “And I don’t know what I need to do to show you that you’re the bravest son of a bitch I know. You’re fucking amazing, they’re loving everything you put in front of them–.”
A good review is a good review, I’ll grant you that, Charles, but you're not building anything with this temporary nonsense. You’ll never make enough for a brick and mortar.
“Don’t lie to me to preserve my feelings,” Charlie whispered, choked around his own convictions.
Ezra’s hand squeezed tighter, stoping just short of vicious. “Call me a fucking liar one more time, Noether, I dare you–. Hey! Look at me, you asshole.”
Charlie cautioned a glance and found himself caught under that burning, infuriated, determined stare – the one that had burned a hole through him on that first night and, now, so many nights after.
“I’m not a liar. You’re not a coward.”
Charlie stared at him, not daring to move his gaze away. Not out of fear, but out of self-preservation. Ezra’s eyes on his and the fearsome grip of his hand kept Charlie anchored to himself. It drowned out mother's awful words. It didn’t scare him anymore. He now knew how much tenderness that ferocity held. Ezra was proud and loyal, protective, a fighter to a fault. It stopped Charlie in his tracks, sometimes shoved him down on his ass, the realization that Ezra could mean to leverage all of that for his benefit. That Ezra could still manage to find new ways to knock him sideways.
“Lee.” Ezra lowered Charlie's hand to the counter, enclosing it in both of his. Some of the fire in his expression had softened. "Indiana Jones, leap of faith. That's all this is, I promise you. This isn’t a cliff.”
Charles, see reason and grow up. This isn’t what you’re meant to do. If the sous-chef position is what you’re after, you’ll have to work your way back up. We can discuss your return next weekend at grandmother’s Easter lunch. Ta.
Charlie bit into his lip and ducked his head. He blinked hard, wetness catching his eyelashes. He gripped Ezra's fingers back as much as he could manage. The reverberation of the voicemail in his head muffled second by second. He did his best to breathe through the wave, biding his time until the relief melted through him.
“Lee?” Ezra loosed one of his hands and smoothed it over Charlie's hair. “Everything okay?”
Charlie nodded and looked up. “Yeah, love, I just…” A laugh escaped him. “Just put it all together in my brain.”
“Care to share?” Ezra pressed, ever so gently.
“I’ve never been loved the way you love me.”
“Charlie, you have Parijatha and Heather and—.”
Charlie raised a hand to cut him off. “Yes, and they love me. Just not like you. Never like you, and I-.” He sucked in a breath, then clasped Ezra's hands in his. “I’m beginning to understand how lucky that makes me.”
Ezra pressed his lips together. It was a look Charlie now knew well. Ezra forcing himself to slow down, to listen; to be present where his energy threatens to override. Eventually, his face relaxed. “You have a good life, Lee. I’m more than happy to remind you. Anytime you need it.”
“Thank you. You are so much of that goodness.”
“Ezra, love, I-.” Charlie pressed a kiss to Ezra's forehead. “I love you.”
“Love you too.” Ezra squeezed him, fixing him with a honeyed gaze. “Let’s get this place cleaned up so I can take you home. How's about it?”