It's just as well the by-line photos accompanying restaurant reviews aren't legally obliged to reflect the actual size of the writer. There has been such a waxing and waning of waistlines in reviewing circles recently that picture editors would be struggling to keep pace. As some of my big-boy peers melt into slender ephebes thanks to no-carb diets, I'm heading in the opposite direction, having adopted a punishing regime of round-the-clock eating in preparation for the judging of the London Restaurant Awards.
The enthusiasm of my vary-sized fellow judges for Magdalen, nominated in the Best British category, was the spur I needed to make an overdue visit to this not-particularly-new, but apparently very good, restaurant in Bermondsey. Since opening early last year, it has picked up glowing reviews and a devoted following. It has survived trial by flooding, when a burst water main dumped eight inches of water in the basement kitchen. And now it would face the ultimate test; trial by David Baddiel, the burst water main of reviewing companions.
It didn't start promisingly. Magdalen glows out incongruously from a grimy strip of highway fringed by riverside developments and Dickensian railway arches. The five-minute walk from London Bridge station is one only Will Self could love. Once inside, there's a cosy, bistro-ish feel, evoked by claret-coloured walls, net curtains and bentwood chairs. David was almost prepared to be charmed. But then our fellow guest Sharon spoke up, swift and merciless: "It's a bit Robin's Nest."
Cruel, maybe; but strangely intuitive. Because like the Fulham bistro run by Richard O'Sullivan and Tessa Wyatt in the late-Seventies sitcom, Magdalen was opened by a husband and wife team, the chefs James and Emma Faulks. Financial backing came from James's father, Roger, reprising the role taken by Tony Britton in the series, but with (one would hope) rather less huffing disapproval. Only the employment of a one-armed Irish dishwasher could complete the happy picture.
It's fair to say, though, that the food at Magdalen is several cuts above anything that Robin Tripp might have produced. James Faulks is a graduate of both the Fat Duck and the Anchor and Hope, his pastry chef wife has worked at the Mandarin Oriental, while their colleague David Abbott comes from Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. Their daily-changing menu at Magdalen is a thing of beauty: seasonal, modern British food offering a snapshot of exactly how we want to eat now.
There's a non-purist openness to European influences at work: fried pigs' head with sauce gribiche could easily have come from the menu of a Best French nominee, while warm squid and saffron salad might have strayed in from the Iberian category. Dishes are assembled according to what's good on the day, with ingredients sourced as much as possible from nearby Borough Market.
A starter salad winningly combined nuggets of duck ham with pickled pears, walnuts and bitter treviso in a walnut oil vinaigrette. Sea trout got the gravadlax treatment, sweet-cured in dill and partnered with chunks of pickled cucumber in a sweet mustard sauce. And David's snails may have come from Hereford, but they had definitely been to France on their holidays; awash in garlic and parsley butter, they came partnered, Burgundy-style, with roast bone marrow, plus toast to mop up the juices. David attempted a little moan about the dish being under-salted, but I felt his resistance melting like bone marrow on warm toast.
In a refreshing departure from the austere, meat-and-no-veg school of modern British cooking, Magdalen's main courses are served appropriately garnished. And they're put together brilliantly. The sweet unctuousness of braised veal shin, cooked long and slow, needed the bite and bitterness that came from baby turnips and the freshest of broad beans. Wild turbot was cooked whole with samphire, leeks and potatoes in a creamy velouté finished with lemon juice and chives; an impeccable one-pot dish. Shoulder of Middlewhite pork came sliced over fresh watercress and braised lentils. Its richness required nothing more, though the side order of peerlessly crisp fried potatoes, smothered with chopped garlic and parsley, was the biggest hit of the meal.
Magdalen offers several of the wines from its ungreedily priced list by the half-bottle carafe; we sampled a plummily ripe Leon Barral Faugères for £21. That policy, and the regular presence on the menu of dishes for two or more to share (it was grilled Longhorn T-bone on the night of our visit) creates an impression of conviviality and generosity that places Magdalen more in the French tradition than the British. And there's something undeniably romantic about the atmosphere, too; several of our fellow diners amid the smart-casual clientele seemed to be first daters (or possibly commuting adulterers, for whom the proximity to London Bridge station must be a bonus).
Puddings, including a fresh-baked cherry and almond tart and a dense chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, showed that Mrs Faulks can more than hold her own in this talented brigade. Service is efficient and unobtrusive; apparently the CCTV system allows the underground chefs to see when a table needs attention, an innovation that the writers of Robin's Nest would have turned into pure comedy gold.
Magdalen seems to provide the missing link between the hardcore modern British canteen, the bistro and the gastropub. David's verdict was, for him, effusive: "Why can't more British restaurants be like this?" Now let's see if the Twelve Hungry Men of the Awards jury agree.
The London Restaurant Awards will be presented on 1 September. To see the full list of nominees visit www.londonrestaurantawards.co.uk.
Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, London, SE1 (020-7403 1342)
Around £50 a head, including wine and service
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