I know little of Bermondsey. And what I do know comes from the works of Charles Dickens – which is to say open sewers and prostitution. The estate agents describe it as an area of old London where wharves and warehouses are lost in a maze of narrow streets. And they say it's in "the throes of gentrification". But they've been saying that for as long as I can remember.
Food was first canned in Bermondsey in 1811. But I doubt that's why Ruth Quinlan moved here from The Eagle – the iconic gastropub in Farringdon. She has decided to put an ocakbasi – a Turkish-style grill – at the heart of The Bermondsey Kitchen, and I was thrilled. Fat meeting flame is always a welcome distraction when conversation dries a little. Just as well, then, that conversation didn't dry. Because the ocakbasi was small. Think gas hob.
The décor was an unremarkable study in brown and grey. The windows were uPVC, and the chairs were hard. I've always thought that, in good company, a hard chair wouldn't bother me. But – and no disrespect to my friend, Al – The Bermondsey Kitchen proved me wrong. I wriggled until the menu came. Then it did. There wasn't enough to stop me wriggling some more.
Nothing wrong with a short, simple menu. But the Bermondsey Kitchen takes short and simple to extremes. Four starters, four mains and three desserts? Fine for a pub. But this is a restaurant, unless you count the one table set aside for drinkers. And everything (apart from the grilled dishes) was there because it could be warmed up quickly, or plated straight from the fridge.
Like the vitello sott'olio – or poached veal. As a vegetarian student I marched to protest about the crating of veal calves. But then I must have moved on to protesting about Nicaragua, because what happened next? I asked the waitress to update me. Had the veal seen natural light? Had it been fed pap – and nothing but pap – to keep its skin deathly white? She didn't know, and went to the kitchen.
The chin stroking round the ocakbasi was like an episode of Antiques Roadshow. The waitress came back, saying she didn't know where the veal was from, but that the flesh was "the colour of tinned tuna". Ah, it's the historic Bermondsey preoccupation with the cannery. But shouldn't we be able to trace the provenance of our meat these days?
For your information, sott'olio refers to foods preserved in olive oil. The veal was young and tender. What else would you expect if it had never seen the sun? I asked for a bottle of Sancerre. The taste of newly mown grass – something the poor veal calf may never have known. But instead I got a bottle of La Serre. By the time I had noticed, the waitress was off. I must learn not to order with my mouth full.
Whatever they tell you at school, it isn't easy to boil an egg. Good fortune and science are required. In class, we were told to take the saucepan off the heat, and cover it with a folded newspaper while we did a small obligation, like answer the door. By the time we came back, we would have ourselves a perfect egg, with a supple, coagulated white and a hot, fluid yolk.
Which is exactly what we got on the Little Gem salad with soft-boiled egg, green beans, croutons and Parmesan (£4). But I'm afraid to say the whole thing had the woebegone look of a Salade Niçoise with missing ingredients – even though the egg was lusciously velveteen in texture, and the leaves were spiritedly dressed.
I would have liked to try the rich, warming boeuf bourguignonne with potato cakes (£12). I've seen it spelled both ways but only ever eaten boeuf bourguignon before. And I reckoned they would probably taste pretty similar, so went instead for the grilled bream with Catalan spinach (£12.50).
Spinach with pine nuts, anchovies and raisins? I love Catalan cooking, and its bold mixing of apparently disparate ingredients. The bream was overcooked in some places and undercooked in others. But my friend's lamb chops were perfect, if a shade pink for his carboniferous palate. No one asked him when his order was taken. I was surprised to see chops on an ocakbasi menu at all. They do have a habit of smoking the place out. Or maybe that's just me.
The chops were even better for a soft sage polenta. For years I believed that polenta was all about stirring. But I've since heard from an Italian friend who reckons that the stirring was just a ruse to keep the grandchildren occupied while the adults tended to the wine. I like my polenta in soft mounds, and the sage worked well. It becomes more subdued with cooking, and acts as a natural accent for lamb.
The Eagle is famous for outstanding peasant food like this. The Bermondsey Kitchen, however, is an average neighbourhood restaurant. Even a neighbourhood restaurant should seat me at something more comfortable than a table and chair I would have refused to sit at in kindergarten. And feed me with something I can't recreate in my own kitchen after visiting the deli.
The Bermondsey Kitchen, 194 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 (020-7407 5719)
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