From Lardo to FOMO: the paralysis of choice

Lardo - small plates, Italian tapas, whatever, it all tastes great

The stickers in the window say it all. Harden’s. Good Food Guide. Time Out. Square Meal. Michelin recommended. Toptable Diner’s Choice. A food hygiene rating of 5. Even a Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence (read into that what you will). Lardo in Hackney has the lot.

This may sound like one of the most sarcastic introductions to an article ever but is in fact a simultaneous ode to and lament of small plates, tapas or cicchetti.

Lardo’s appeal is simple to grasp. Charming, knowledgeable staff. Largish outdoor area for summer time-whiling. A neat and interesting wine list. A big, sexy pizza oven (and the proper pizze to go with it). And, if you look beyond the bold brunches and bready bases, there are the stars of the show: small, intriguing plates – salads, charcuterie, cheese, antipasti.

I have been perhaps six or so times and have yet to order a pizza, gluten-free or otherwise. And the reason is thus: while I am a sucker for a doughy disc bubbling in front of the wood fire, I am a) generally off carbs (as I’ve bored you with previously) and b) always much more drawn to the mini meals on offer.

I am a glutton, a greedy former fatty and food enthusiast so when there’s the option of sampling five dishes as opposed to one, I’m sold. Several food writers have explained how the small plate revolution is essentially a license to print money for restaurateurs, as my fellow indulgents clamor for a bit of this and a bit of that, with each dish carefully priced so as to maximise profit while still appearing attractive. A few (OK, more than a few) dishes between two or so later, plus a decent bottle of wine and you can be nudging £70 for what started out as a casual lunch. And I’m a sucker for it all.

No matter what the cuisine’s heritage, I rattle off a multi-dish order longer than the driver of a minibus full of stoned teenagers at a drive thru. Vietnamese, Peruvian, Spanish (naturally), you name it (sans English), I’m there mid-dinner dilemma debating whether I really need that extra plate of pickled artichokes or manchego or Iberico ham.

And when gluttony combines with a fear of missing out, or FOMO for anyone who’s been on the Internet, like, ever, the effect is all-consuming. I could have the sea bass, but then I simply love avocado, but I have that all the time and that pasta dish sounds good, but I could make that at home, and the dish with the micro-greens will look so pretty on Instagram but it’s a tad fussy and a good piece of red meat sounds enticing, but I’ve got a holiday coming up and it comes with chips, but perhaps they will substitute them for a side salad, but maybe that’ll upset the chef and I don’t want to do that as it’s nice here so I’ll make it easy for him by ordering the soup but I don’t really fancy that as it’s soooo boring and Seventies but if I don’t go for the asparagus will it be on the menu again but then it’s not in season so, er, sea bass it is! This menu merry-go-round is excruciating – my greed mixed with a childlike excitement for a new culinary discovery or combination means that there’s often so much choice I find it incredibly hard to make one.

Ten years ago American psychologist Barry Schwartz published a book that explores his idea of the paradox of choice, whereby those with most options feel the least satisfied and the most anxiety. His TED Talk explains the concept far more eloquently than I ever could so I’ll leave it to the man himself.

Every day we experience this. Which TV from the thousands of options do we buy? Is that white shirt better than the next of the circa 200 offered by Asos? Is that melon more ripe than this one? Without meaning to go all pop-psyche on you all, I’d even go one step further than Mr. Schwartz and suggest that at the further reaches of this anxiety surrounding the surfeit of choice is the inability to choose at all, so numerous and daunting are the options. A paralysis of choice if you will.

Fewer choices focus our minds – albeit counterintuitive, the restriction actually helps us to decide. In our post-Amazonian world of infinite selections, places like Sager + Wilde, with it’s regularly changing, small but perfectly formed wine list, José’s and Polpo do so well by not offering as much. Yes, we must trust a chef or sommelier to select only the very best, the most interesting, the highest quality but once that trust is established, we are freed from the tyranny of the expansive menu and the choice because there are no wrong answers.

Which brings me back to Lardo.

A bit of pavement on a side road off of Mare Street may not instantly conjure up London’s answer to classic terrazza dining. But somehow among the fixies, loud car stereos, bleary-eyed beardies and new build blocks, for the past two years, owners Eliza Flanagan and Hugo Thorn have cultivated a proper Italian oasis (albeit with the requisite East London edginess – crumbling walls, mismatched tableware, you know the deal). Many an hour have I spent on the skinny benches, cheek by jowl with fellow excitable diners, sharing space, conversation, wine and suncream in the blaze of a British summer of old. It’s a set up that encourages sharing – only my greed stops me from offering up our dishes to those next door – and a bustling friendliness oozes like a properly melted pizza topping.

On my latest visit, and setting aside the glorious mid-October sunshine, the warm reception and the company, this, like every meal I’ve had there, was delightful. I’m sure they are a fluffy, crusty, gooey delight, but I’ve got a vague idea what their pizzas are going to taste like, so the small, seasonally changing plates once again got my fullest attention. With old favourites such as the swordfish carpaccio and a super broad bean and pecorino salad now replaced for more autumnal options, it was over to dishes such as the silken, earthy lentils with mozzarella and a pungent pesto to take up the baton. The draw of duck ham, elderberries and goat’s curd couldn’t be resisted and didn’t disappoint, the supple ham deftly set off by the fruit’s sharpness. Home-cured fatty fennel pollen salame was suitably perfumed (they make all their own charcuterie in house) while the meal’s crowning glory, a plump whole burrata sat in a pool of near-green olive oil, was a vision of such perfect simplicity it was almost a shame to attempt to eat it. The wine, a lithe, light garnacha suggested but not upsold to us by our warm host, was an ideal companion for the small plates and the sunshine alike.

Strolling away a little fuzzy-headed as per, we concluded Lardo hardly offers faaahn daaahning. But more fine a way to spend a lazy afternoon we couldn’t have wanted.

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