The paradigm for London restaurants that punch above their weight is Chez Bruce, the wildly successful Wandsworth eaterie named the other day (in Hardens Restaurant Guide 2008) as the London foodies' No 1 favourite place to chow down for over 45 a head. Established by Bruce Poole on the site of Harveys a now-legendary venue, where both Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay cut their haute cuisine fangs in the early Nineties its name is uttered with trembly respect by Claphamites and Stockwell-dwellers who can only dream of having such a classy joint as a neighbour. Inhabitants of the sprawling Nowheresville that is Wandworth hold their heads higher because of Chez Bruce. But for a year or so, the denizens of Balham have acquired a similar boost to the spirits because of a place called Lamberts.
It's located on Balham High Road, the dismayingly wide and windy thoroughfare that becomes a riot of car showrooms and designer sari shops when it hits Tooting Bec. Don't let that put you off, though; this place is a haven. I discovered it when I was lunching with friends one Sunday, and noted (NB unsleeping devotion to duty) its generous slabs of pink roast beef, crispy Yorkshire pudding and heavenly apple and blueberry crumble. I also noted that it offered excellent value at three courses for 20, and that I couldn't fault any of the cooking. It seemed too good to be true. So I went back to see if I'd been dreaming.
Even on a freezing Monday night in December it was almost full at 9pm, its diners clearly not the passing trade from Balham Tube next door. The warmth of the place was mirrored in the dcor: warm brown velvet sofa-banquettes, cream walls, discreet lighting. It was cosy without making you feel too, you know... enfolded. The maître d's welcome and his enthusiasm over the dishes seemed genuine. My friend Tim and I felt like travellers in some territory of yak and steppe who'd stumbled unexpectedly into a Dickensian tavern.
The December menu offered some hearty treats: winter vegetable stew, for instance, or Lancashire hotpot, or "Farmer Sharp's Herdwick mutton, werther and lamb" (Farmer Sharp sounds as if he's got a suspiciously large amount of dead sheep to unload). It couldn't be more redolent of home fires burning in the deep midwinter ...
Lamberts is all about British cooking, and is performed with flair and ambition, though sometimes Joe Lambert, the owner, overdoes it. I loved the sound of "Line-caught scallops, black pudding stuffed pig's trotter" but was crestfallen to find, on three cocquille shells, six small scallops into which teensy lumps of boudin, wrapped in trotter marrowbone, had been rudely introduced. It tasted good but was, if I may coin a phrase, just too effing sophisticated. Tim's walnut and cheddar tart with caramelised pear was a solid-looking wedge of protein, but suffered from a similar preciocity: the cheese had the consistency of a mousse, while the wedges of pear sat a little glumly on the sidelines.
I feared I might have been wrong about Lamberts, but things improved, as they so often do, with the arrival of cooked meats and a bottle of Chteau du Grand Pierre '04 costing a reasonable 25. My partridge, jointed and cooked in its own pot with new potatoes and baby carrots, was a dream of juicy game poultry, moistened by a simple wine-and-flour sauce. Tim's daube of White Park beef, smoked bacon, baby onions and mushrooms simply whacked you with flavour. The meat was tender and chewy and falling off the bone, accompanied by colcannon, the old Irish dish in which yesterday's cabbage is reconstituted with mashed potato and finished with shallots and cream. Any flavour deficiencies in the beef were redeemed by the smouldery kiss of bacon.
Over a very superior lemon posset pie, a plate of Neal's Yard cheeses (notably the Strathdon Blue) and final glasses of Muscat and white Bel-Air Bordeaux, we agreed that Lamberts was a discovery, a diamond in the rough, a pilot-light of classy cooking in the wastes of Balham High Road, and that Chez Bruce does indeed have a south London rival snapping at its heels. Next day, I looked at the Hardens guide again. In the list of the London foodies' favourite restaurants under 45 a head, Lamberts came second (after Inside in Greenwich). How enraging to find that one's newest discovery has been well and truly discovered ...
Lamberts, 2 Station Parade, Balham High Road, London SW12 (020-8675 2233)
Around 110 for two people, including wine
Side orders: Balham bites
By Madeleine Lim
Polish White Eagle Club
The food here is predictably hearty: beef goulash and potato pancakes, pierogi, blinis with smoked salmon and caviar and platters of herrings, washed down with great Polish beers. Eccentric dcor; charming ambience.
211 Balham High Road, SW17 (020-8672 1723)
Sam Harrison, who runs the popular Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick, recently took on this Balham hotspot; try a steak bavette with fries and bearnaise sauce (11.50) from the brasserie menu or Maryland crab cakes with chipotle aioli (7.50) from the brunch menu.
15-19 Bedford Hill, SW12 (020-8675 6900)
Imaginative, well-executed Nepalese cuisine. Mains cooked in the charcoal oven include marinated Gurkhali chicken andlamb shank cooked on the bone with gravy. Prices are reasonable; starters are 2.90-4.25 and main courses start at 5.50.
1 The Boulevard, Balham High Road, SW17 (020-8675 1188)
From classic pizzas to seafood pasta and grilled meats, the Italian cuisine at this popular local is classic, well-executed and refreshingly unpretentious. Generous portions, well-priced set meals and friendly service add to the appeal. Children are welcome.
225 Balham High Road, SW17 (020-8682 3553)