There's been a lot of nonsense talked already about The Crooked Well. The spectacle of a middle-class restaurant opening in apparently hard-as-nails Camberwell – a gastropub (gasp!) run by a chap called Hector (shriek!) whose website brazenly mentions that he worked in a French nightclub during his gap-year (snigger!) and whose partner is a double-barrelled posho called Matt whose career began in Tunbridge Wells (stop! Stop!) – is being greeted as if Heston Blumenthal had opened a restaurant in Wormwood Scrubs.
For heaven's sake. Camberwell has always leaned towards, if not gentility, then class-neutrality. It occupies a no-man's-land between Brixton and Dulwich, constantly pulled between the edgy and the bourgeois, somehow maintaining equilibrium. When I lived there, my neighbours were journalists and advertising types. Florence Welch, of the Machine, grew up in my road. Ten years earlier, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Terry Jones of the Monty Pythons all lived in Camberwell Grove (though, sadly, not together). It was hardly an upscale neighbourhood, but it wasn't conspicuously grotty. And before The Crooked Well was on this site, a bar called The Parisien managed to hold its own against the, you know, marauding street hooligans, and served perfectly acceptable steaks.
Angie and I arrived at 8.30pm on a freezing Tuesday evening, looking for comfort and, more to the point, comfort food. From outside, The Well is a rather cheerless-looking place with uncurtained windows. Inside, stage left, there's a drinking-and-chatting section, then a bar, then, stage right, a more formal dining area. You wouldn't call it a warm place. Beneath a wall of exposed brickwork was a fireplace, with five candles (rather than logs and coal) burning in it. The radiator beside our table was set to Tepid. The lights were set to Dim/Gloomy. Unclothed Formica tables and wooden chairs creaked on wooden floorboards. More uncurtained windows disclosed the spectacle of frozen Camberwellians struggling home to their two-bar electric fires. I was afraid my frozen fiancée would start to weep.
We needed high levels of pampering, stroking and warming-up. Though the room wasn't up to it, luckily The Well's food and drink were. I liked the way they served gin-and-tonic in a tall glass with a cucumber-long slice of cucumber. Angie loved the watercress and spinach soup, its subtlety given a kick of blue-cheese mousse, clamped between two shards of baguette. I wolfed down my salt and pepper baby squid, lightly battered and perfectly seasoned. We could feel ourselves warming, and indeed cheering, up.
The mains on offer didn't endear themselves. They featured pork belly and calves' liver, none of which appealed; whole trout and grilled seabass with mussels (doesn't hit the spot on a cold night); ricotta ravioli and ratatouille puff pastry (never on a Tuesday – or, indeed, ever). That left only the steak and the venison with red cabbage and white pudding – too rich for the wretched, half-thawed-out carnivore. Luckily, an evening special was announced – duck leg with chorizo and chickpea stew. Could there be a more butch, more comfort-foodie dish? I had reservations about combining chorizo sausage with duck, but it worked out fine, the tiny cubes of Hispanic spice nuzzling against the steaming dark slithery morsels of Anatidae. The chickpeas, though, were a step too far. They brought only a tanning-salon orange hue to the dish, and, later, I'm afraid, a shocking attack of flatulence.
Angie's chargrilled picanha steak (picanha's a Brazilian cut, somewhere between sirloin and rump, though the meat is "100 per cent British") was simply grilled with a herby butter on the side. More impressive were the creamy mashed potato dotted with gleaming traces of garlic, and the super-sweet Chantenay carrots.
Our waitress, Kitty, not only knew everything about every dish, she knew her wine, too. She recommended a Portuguese 2008 Vista Touriga Nacional Reserva. The first taste struck me as tight and unyielding, but 20 minutes later, the wine had emerged from its shell, and was soft and smoochy and delicious. That girl has excellent taste.
We could barely manage a pudding from a delectable-sounding list. But we had to try the lemongrass mousse with mandarin coulis, out of interest. Under a tiara of spun sugar the mousse had the texture of cottage cheese, which did not go at all with the mandarin soup.
Nonetheless, we left The Crooked Well feeling well-disposed to the chefs who seemed to know how to warm the cockles of the January punter. But since, at 1 0.30pm, Camberwell's newest gastropub resembled Edward Hopper's bleak Nighthawks painting, I'd say Hector and Matt and friends need to rethink the atmosphere. The Chase Co at 91 Camberwell Grove (very bourgeois) would be a start. They have some lovely curtains, I believe...
The Crooked Well, 16 Grove Lane, London SE5 (020-7252 7798)
About £100 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Gastro greats
The Hand & Flowers
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The Star Inn
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