Camberwell is where night buses cross paths as they deliver drunken loads from the bright lights to south-east London. It's where I used to take my pocket money to my first bank. It's where I bought my first bike and where, as a teenager growing up in New Cross, I fell off it while cycling home from a dingy pub that is now a Nigerian movie-themed bar called Planet Nollywood.
Camberwell has never been – in my mind at least – somewhere to stop for dinner. These days, it serves me only as a massive crossroads (left for Vauxhall, straight on for Elephant & Castle) but for a few months now rumours have circled of a tantalising new addition to the area's global buffet of, let's face it, mostly dodgy dishes – something worth stopping for.
To walk into Angels & Gypsies, a Spanish restaurant sandwiched between a kebab shop and a KFC, is to enter another place. A serene, churchy theme defines the dining-room, where restored pews and prayer chairs do for seating, and back-lit stained-glass tableaux hang on bare brick walls. Hams and mighty sausages dangle in the window but the spare interior prevents the Iberian theme approaching the tiles'n'terracotta triteness of, say, La Tasca. I'm told it's the same story upstairs in the boutique Church Street Hotel, which opened to huge acclaim three years ago.
The tables are full on a Tuesday night, when all is fairly quiet outside, and soon the central horseshoe bar, where a deftly carved jamó*Ibérico is clamped in its stand, fills up with expectant diners – young couples, mainly – drinking in the incongruity of their surroundings and a chilled glass of rose Rioja, the wine of the day (£6.25 a glass).
Taking a pew, I and my friends Toby and Clemency, who are just as hungry for decent restaurants with SE postcodes (we share a flat in Forest Hill, which is leafy) seek recommendations and dish-number advice. "Two or three each," suggests the waitress. Toby and I take that to mean four and so commit ourselves to a feast.
The menu offers a varied bunch of regional dishes as well as examples of British produce (Scottish clams, Angus sirloin). We've barely sipped the house red – a vibrant, light Mirador de Navajas Rioja (£15), chosen from a long wine list with plenty of wallet-friendly bottles – when the first of a dozen small plates start to arrive.
The dainty wedges of classic tortilla with aioli dip (£4) are fresh and clean if slightly underwhelming, but the jamó*croquetas (£5), deep-fried capsules of ham and béchamel in breadcrumbs, are so delicately creamy we only wish there were more than one each. Next comes a board of sliced meats (£9) – chorizo, salchichon and delicious shavings of ibérico paletta.
Clem declares the next dish her favourite: glistening oyster mushrooms (£4) cooked with parsley and warmly, roundly spiced with chilli. Even better, I think, is a length of chorizo (£5.50) fried in deliciously sweet Basque cider and piquant pickled peppers.
By now it's all we can do not to drool over the table, which quickly disappears under a spread of dishes (if anything, the excellent service is too fast).
Highlights that follow include king gambas in a piquillo pepper vinaigrette (£8.50), the largest prawns any of us has seen, and a mass of chopped octopus in paprika (pulpo a feira, £7.50), which is tender in a way tentacles so rarely are. A slab of slow-roasted pork belly (£6.50), though possibly under-done, pairs beautifully with a dollop of rum plum jam.
There are only four desserts to choose from (all £4), so we share a crumbly pistachio and almond tart, which tastes as through it's laced with orange, a dainty if, Toby says, meagre crème caramel and, best of all, a stack of cinnamon-dusted churros, the Spanish breakfast snack (think doughnuts), with thick chocolate dipping sauce. Were we not already quite full, we'd get some more for the ride home – and a third helping for the morning.
So there it is – a destination restaurant in south London easily good enough to tempt my north-of-the river friends, some of whom wonder whether Forest Hill is "in, like, Kent or something". And, get this, just a few doors down from Angels is Silk Road, a new Chinese canteen majoring in Xinjiang cuisine. I'm told it does some of the best dumplings in London. I'll be back on the 176 to Camberwell soon...
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Angels & Gypsies, 29-33 Camberwell Church Street, London SE5, tel: 020 7703 5984 About £60 for tapas and desserts for two with drinks. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Monday
More tasty tapas
El Gato Negro
1 Oldham Road, Ripponden, West Yorkshire, tel: 01422 823 070
This cheery and well-managed former boozer with its high-quality Hispanic cuisine makes an unexpected find in the middle of scenic Yorkshire
23 South Road, Liverpool, tel: 0151 949 1151
A north Liverpool tapas bar that feels and smells and tastes authentic – like stepping into Barcelona; (though its new city-centre offshoot doesn't hit the mark in the same way)
Casa Don Carlos
5 Union Street, Brighton, tel: 01273 327 177
Your classic, friendly, buzzy and authentic tapas bar; after more than two decades under the same ownership, this lovely Lanes destination is just as popular as ever
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.com