Only Food and Courses, Pop Brixton, 49 Station Road, London SW9 8PQ (onlyfoodandcourses.co.uk). Starters £ 10, main courses £ 14, desserts £ 10, wines from £ 24
On the wall of the space housing this week’s restaurant there is a sign reading: “A brilliantly cheeky touch of classic British cuisine.” There is a lot to unpack here, especially the second word; I will be the judge and so on. Before you even get to this sign, you have to face the name of the restaurant. It’s called Only Food and Courses. It’s barbarism at the boss’s level, but pretty much excusable, I think. The restaurant is located inside Pop Brixton, the loosely limbed food and drink market built from converted shipping containers that is just a few miles from Peckham, the setting for the John Sullivan sitcom Only fools and horses. Geddit? Of course you do.
Let’s go back for a moment: a name on a pun; a cheeky twist; a shipping container. I can imagine that some people get quite angry and swear. At various times, those people might just be me. In the face of cheeky twists, I have, in the past, crushed all of Charlton Heston at the end of the original. Planet of the Apes, falling to his knees in despair before a shattered Statue of Liberty. Although metaphorically. With my hip issues, it may take a while for me to pick myself up.
The saving grace here, I think, is the setting. It’s impossible for Chef Robbie Lorraine and Manager Martyn Barrett, who manages himself most of the time, to get too serious and get up when their house is a sea container. In another life it could very well have been part of a bowel blockage in the Suez Canal. I look inside. It is nicely appointed: clean white tiled floors and an open kitchen to the rear. But none of this obscures its true nature. When we visit it is of course to eat out only. There is room for a dozen of us just beyond the doors on a raised wooden platform above the rest of Pop Brixton. We eat on tables made from the purest planks and are protected from the spring sun by thick transparent plastic screens the color of boiled candy. Filtered light is wreaking havoc with my Instagram photos.
Normally they will function as a dinner club serving six courses to just 14 people, in two sessions indoors, for £ 65 per person. The menu will change every month. As a palliative, they imagined a short menu of the day of only 10 dishes, which will continue: four starters, four main courses, two desserts. That means the bill can add up, but there is both serious attention to detail and hard work here. Just expect every dish description to be slightly misleading, and sometimes on purpose.
The commercial part of a Bloody Mary, for example, comes in the form of an alcoholic and fiery granita, the shards of ice resembling something chipped by Superman’s Fortress of Loneliness. This is an interesting tip given the low freezing point of vodka. It’s accompanied by roasted tomatoes, chickpea crisps and a dill oil which, thanks to a bit of old-fashioned Blumenthal-esque modernism, has been turned into a powder. Not so much a boring deconstruction as a reconfiguration. Ham, eggs, and fries have all of these things. Except the ham element is a compressed tangle of pork terrine, the eggs are just the dried yolks and there’s more of those chickpea crisps. Swirls of mashed peas and sweet pickled onion rings complete the dish. Ignore the title and what you have is a cheerful, well-executed dish.
And so, to the shrimp cocktail which is both and is not. The Marie Rose sauce was sprayed with nitrogen to be placed in airy cushions around the shrimp. It’s sprinkled with tiny spherifications of balsamic vinegar, another old-fashioned technique developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in the 90s, when playing with your food like that was all the rage. There are ribbons of pickled cucumber and charred lettuce. It is indeed a shrimp cocktail, but not your shrimp cocktail. Let’s finish this round with slices of very good salmon in molasses, layered with puffed wheat, green herb leaves and a block of Jenga crème fraîche formed into a jelly.
Our first main course, a smoked short rib mince, is the closest thing to a familiar dish and, being turn-shaped, has a sweet nostalgia of the 90s: there is a pedestal of mashed potatoes that sits on top of it. the long-braised beef, all soaked in a slowly reduced juice, the last drops of which I chase around the plate with big fingers. Is it just me? After that, it’s pure fantasy until the end. There is a perfectly made scotch egg, in which the pork has been replaced by white crab meat. The yellow is dripping and there’s a dollop of glistening caviar to make sure he’s dressed properly for the occasion.
The eclairs of duck are aptly described: slices of crispy shelled choux bread are split and filled with grated and salted duck confit and glazed with a juice, then decorated with edible flowers. There are three of us at the table and three éclairs on the plate. I ask if this is the normal portion. I’m told the standard portion is two, but if there are three people at the table, they send a third. They do the same with the lobster fritters, which are indeed fried donuts, filled with lobster bound in mayonnaise and dusted with beet powder. Do I tell you that both are delicious?
The desserts are the only failure. In a Bakewell slice, cherries have been replaced with beets. That doesn’t make it a better Bakewell or even a surprisingly different Bakewell. It just makes it weird and disappointing. The beet may be sweet, but it can still have a vegetal and moldy side, underlined by the pieces of golden beets on the plate. Better yet, an extremely well-made lemon meringue pie with toasted meringue peaks and fatty spherical pearls that burst into a sweet, lemony syrup, the essence of a sherbet dib dab.
Did the repeated mismatch between the name and the contents of the dish, the cheeky twist of it all, itch your palms? Fair enough. I understand. But I tell you how seriously I took this cuisine because, despite all this fantasy, it deserves to be taken seriously. Only Food and Courses is a careful exercise in misguidance. But it’s sweet and benign. In addition, it results in eclairs of duck and lobster fritters. How could anyone seriously complain about this?
Chef and restaurateur Mike Robinson, known for the Harwood Arms game in London, is opening a third restaurant in a recently launched Indigo Hotel. After The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Elder in Bath (which I saw again last summer) comes The Forge, in Chester. It will launch next Wednesday, May 19. The opening menu includes a wood pigeon salad with bacon and black pudding, a grilled wild deer leg and a cherry soufflé. AT theforgechester.com.
Chef Mark Greenaway, who has made a name for himself in a number of well-received restaurants in Edinburgh, has branched out into pie and mash. Greenaway’s Pie and Mash first outpost recently opened on Villiers Street, next to Charing Cross station in London. Pie options cost £ 6 each and include prime rib with pearl onions, duck confit with lentils and orange, and vegan hash with red wine and rosemary. Toppings, including mash, peas, gravy and parsley liqueur, cost around £ 1 more. Visit greenawayspies.com.
Nico Simeone, the chef of a group of tasting menu-based restaurants called Six by Nico in Edinburgh, London, Belfast, Manchester and Liverpool will be opening a second business in Glasgow, all of the proceeds of which will go to the Beatson Cancer Charity. The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Center treated Simeone’s wife, Valentina, when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015. Beat 6 will open in late summer and, like their other restaurants, will serve a themed tasting menu that will change regularly. See sixbynico.fr.