Old masters at work

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The Independent Culture
I admit it: I am not at all au fait with the contemporary art scene. Do I recognise a Catherine Yass when I see one? No. Do I recognise a Mark Wallinger? No. Do I recognise Mark Wallinger? No. Mind you, I don't suppose he recognised me, either, so we're about quits on that one. Luckily, I happened to be with two painterly friends of mine who do know what's what and who's who in modern art. Jen gave me the low-down on the colour scheme: flower pots, cobalt blue and chairs almost to match; tables, sage green. I could tell straight away that the walls were white and the floor was plain varnished wood. But it was Pete who saved me from any faux pas on the Wallingers.

Meanwhile, Mr Wallinger and colleagues were trailing their way across the where-it's-at gallery, ambling into Delfina Studio Cafe, and making straight for the long refectory table that is their own. Delfina's resident artists, lucky souls, can all tuck into a fine lunch for the princely sum of pounds 1. From our table, we couldn't quite work out what was on their menu, but they all looked well-fed and happy on it, as well they might. Mark Wallinger, Pete assures me, cannot possibly be impoverished, but those here who are also get free studio space for two years. Not a bad deal, all in all.

Lunch here (they only open from 10am to 4pm) is not a bad deal either, even when you have to pay the full whack. Delfina Studio Cafe is one of those well-known secrets that people love to discover. A bit like Bermondsey itself, I suppose, where every other building is either an alternative venue, a warehouse gallery, artists' studios or festooned with banners offering New York-style lofts for sale. Delfina Studio Cafe is by far the smartest looking gaff in Bermondsey Street ... for the moment. Full-price tables are packed with suits from across the river, as well as a healthy complement of soigne chic.

The owners describe their food as Modern British which can cover a ragbag of international ingredients thrown together for shock effect with no other discernible merit (not dissimilar, in my untutored opinion, to some modern art), but here they are too cool to make that kind of a mistake, on the whole. Clean, clear, marked flavours are the order of the day, beautifully presented with an eye for colour. The swishest little touch is probably the limpid, yellow olive oil drizzled into a saucer as the bread is served.

This is not just any old extra-virgin olive oil. It comes from the studio's eponymous owner, Delfina Entrecanales' own Spanish estate as does the house wine (complete with Wallinger label).

I'd been rather tempted to order two first courses and ignore the bigger dishes, but just as well I didn't. The three starters we chose turned out to be the low point of our meal. Best of the trio was the globe artichoke gribiche, leaves prettily fanned out, the inner cone jauntily upturned to show its silky purple lining. Why don't more restaurants serve artichokes like this in their full glory? What a treat they are, and what pleasure the slow ritual of pulling the leaves off one by one to nibble away the fleshy base, all the while moving closer and closer to the hidden jewel, the plump cup of a heart. The gribiche sauce, with its finely chopped egg and full complement of herbs was discretely hidden among the foliage; it's not the prettiest of sauces. This one lacked something of the essential lemony tartness that an artichoke needs to balance its insistent sweet flavour, but otherwise stood its ground well.

My char-grilled baby squid weren't very baby at all. When I think of baby squid, I think of those tiny little-finger length things that nobody but a saint would consider stuffing. These were adolescents, and came packed with a green herby stuffing that stifled the squid's flavour, and connived with what would otherwise have been a deliciously salty fennel salad to push the whole into overkill. The smoked chicken Caesar, while perfectly pleasant, had become neither one thing nor the other. It certainly wasn't a Caesar salad any longer with its halved yellow and red cherry tomatoes. Well-hidden nuggets of avocado and cubes of smoked chicken might have fared better in a straight avocado and smoked chicken salad.

The larger canvas of the main courses was where Delfina's chef began to shine. The look on Pete's face at the first mouthful of his roast maize- fed chicken with sesame and chilli dressing was verging on beatific. Tender meat, but it was the dark, sticky dressing, sweet and salty, knubbly and nutty with sesame seeds, with hints of ginger and chilli that stole the show in the mouth. Casually straddling the brown of the chicken and sauce were long, green, wheat-like stems of the cultivated wild asparagus that has just begun to creep into the country (they sell it occasionally in Wait-rose), with a slippery texture and delicate flavour.

Good farmed salmon, not too muddy, nor too flabby and greasy, meant that we girls enjoyed our mainstays almost as much. Nicely grilled to retain a moist, translucent heart, it lay plumply on a bed of sweet-and-sour carrot shreds, and was haloed with a ring of mango, coriander and spring onion salsa. Had I had my way, I might have dispensed with some or all of the oil in the salsa but it remained fresh and pure for all that.

And the stars of the whole show, the Turner-Prize finalists of the meal, were definitely the puddings. The marzipan tart with strawberries - like a frangipane but only more so, almondy in the extreme, lightened by the thin layer of strawberries gracing the upper layer. The summer fruit gratin, actually an artistically licensed creme brulee of deep indulgence, lightened again by fruit that disappeared into the densely creamy custard. And the passion fruit parfait, tart and creamy, held aloft on scarlet feet of poached peach. All three ranked high as beautiful modern interpretations of old masters.