Only Food and Courses, Pop Brixton, 49 Station Road, London SW9 8PQ (onlyfoodandcourses.co.uk). Starters £10, mains £14, desserts £10, wines from £24
On the wall of the space housing this week’s restaurant is a sign which reads: “A brilliantly cheeky twist on classic British food.” There is a lot to unpack here, not least the second word; I’ll be the judge of that and so on. Even before you get to that sign, you have to confront the name of the restaurant. It’s called Only Food and Courses. That’s boss-level punnery right there, but just about excusable, I think. The restaurant is located inside Pop Brixton, the loose-limbed food-and-drink market built out of converted shipping containers that is only a couple of miles from Peckham, the setting for John Sullivan’s sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Geddit? Sure you do.
Let’s step back for a moment: a punning name; a cheeky twist; a shipping container. I can well imagine certain people getting quite cross and sweary. At various times those people might well be me. In the face of cheeky twists I have, in the past, come over all Charlton Heston at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, dropping to his knees in despair before a shattered Statue of Liberty. Although only metaphorically. With my hip issues, it can take a while to get up again.
‘It both is and isn’t’: prawn cocktail. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
The saving grace here, I think, is the setting. It is impossible for chef Robbie Lorraine and manager Martyn Barrett, who mostly manages himself, to get too serious and up themselves when their home is a shipping container. In another life, it could quite easily have been part of an intestinal blockage on the Suez Canal. I peek inside. It’s nicely done out: clean, white tiling and an open kitchen at the back. But none of that disguises its true nature. When we visit it is, of course, outside eating only. There is space for a dozen of us just beyond the doors on a raised wooden platform up above the rest of Pop Brixton. We eat off tables of the purest plank and are shielded from the spring sunshine by thick, transparent plastic screens the colour of boiled sweets. The filtered light plays havoc with my Instagram pics.
In normal times they will be operating as a supper club serving six courses to just 14 people, in two sittings inside, for £65 a head. The menu will change on a monthly basis. As a stopgap, they have devised a short daytime menu of just 10 dishes, which will continue: four starters, four mains, two desserts. This means the bill can mount up, but then there is both serious attention to detail and hard work on show here. Just expect every dish description to be gently misleading and, at times, wilfully so.
‘Ignore the title and it’s a cheery, well-executed dish’: ham, eggs and chips. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
The business part of a bloody Mary, for example, arrives in the form of a boozy, fiery granita, the ice shards looking like something chipped from Superman’s fortress of solitude. It’s a neat trick given the low freezing point of vodka. It comes with long-roasted tomatoes, chickpea chips and a dill oil that has, through a bit of old-school Blumenthal-esque modernism, been processed into a powder. Not so much an annoying deconstruction as a reconfiguration. Ham, egg and chips has all those things. Except the ham element is a compressed tangle of piggy terrine, the eggs are just the cured yolks and there are more of those chickpea chips. Whorls of pea purée and rings of sweet pickled onion complete the plate. Ignore the title and what you have is a cheery, well-executed dish.
And so, to the prawn cocktail that both is and isn’t. The Marie Rose sauce has been put through a nitrous gun so it sits in aerated pillows around the prawns. It’s dotted with tiny spherifications of balsamic vinegar, another old-school technique developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli back in the 90s, when playing with your food like this was all the rage. There are ribbons of pickled cucumber and some charred lettuce. It is indeed a prawn cocktail, just not your prawn cocktail. Let’s finish this round with slices of extremely good treacle-cured salmon, laid with puffed wheat, fronds of green herbs and a Jenga block of crème fraîche formed into a jelly.
‘Do I need to tell you they are delicious?’ Lobster doughnuts. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Our first main, a smoked short-rib hash, is the closest to a familiar dish and, being formed into a tower, has a sweet 90s nostalgia to it: there is a pedestal of crushed potatoes upon which sits the long-braised beef, all of it drenched in a slowly reduced jus, the last dribbles of which I chase around the plate with fat finger pads. Is that only me? After that, it’s pure whimsy all the way. There’s a perfectly made scotch egg, in which the pork has been replaced by white crab meat. The yolk is running and there is a sizeable spoonful of glistening caviar to make sure it’s dressed properly for the occasion.
Duck eclairs are fairly described: slices of crisp-shelled choux pastry bun are split and filled with shredded, salty duck confit and glazed with a jus, then decorated with edible flowers. There are three of us at the table and three eclairs on the plate. I ask if it’s the normal portion. I’m told the standard portion size is two, but if there happen to be three people at the table, they send out a third. They do the same with the lobster doughnuts, which are indeed deep-fried doughnuts, filled with mayo-bound lobster, and dusted with beetroot powder. Do I need to tell you that both of these are delicious?
Desserts bring the only misfire. In a Bakewell slice the cherries have been replaced with beetroot. This does not make it a better Bakewell or even an intriguingly different Bakewell. It just makes it weird and disappointing. Beetroot may be sweet, but it can still have a vegetal, musty edge, pointed up by the pieces of golden beetroot on the plate. Far better is an extremely well-made lemon meringue tart with toasted meringue peaks and fat spherified pearls which burst with a sweet, lemony syrup, the very essence of a sherbet dib dab.
‘The very essence of a sherbet dib dab’: lemon meringue tart. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Did the repeated mismatch between dish name and contents, the cheeky twistiness of it all, make your palms itchy? Fair enough. I understand. But I direct you to how seriously I’ve taken this cooking because, for all that whimsy, it deserves to be taken seriously. Only Food and Courses is a careful exercise in misdirection. But it’s a sweet and benign one. Plus, it results in duck eclairs and lobster doughnuts. How could anyone seriously complain about that?
Chef and restaurateur Mike Robinson, known for the game-focused Harwood Arms in London, is opening a third restaurant inside a newly launched Indigo Hotel. Following on from the Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Elder in Bath (which I reviewed last summer) comes The Forge, in Chester. It launches next Wednesday, 19 May. The opening menu includes a wood pigeon salad with bacon and black pudding, grilled haunch of wild fallow deer and a cherry bakewell souffle. At theforgechester.com.
The chef Mark Greenaway, who made his name at a number of well received restaurants in Edinburgh, has branched out into pie and mash. The first outpost of Greenaway’s Pie and Mash has recently opened on Villiers Street next to London’s Charing Cross station. The pie options cost £6 each and include a beef short rib with pearl onion, a confit duck with lentils and orange, and a vegan mince with red wine and rosemary. Toppings, including mash, mushy peas, gravy and parsley liquor, cost about £1 extra. Visit greenawayspies.com.
Nico Simeone, the chef behind a group of tasting menu-based restaurants called Six by Nico in Edinburgh, London, Belfast, Manchester and Liverpool is to open a second venture in Glasgow, with all profits going to the Beatson Cancer Charity. The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre 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 which will change regularly. See sixbynico.co.uk.
Email Jay at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
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