Thursday, 6 August 2009
Clapham Common has its Trinity, East Dulwich its Franklins, New Cross its Chicken Cottage. Local restaurants that cater to local tastes - good value, informal and tasty. And Balham, for many years now, hidden away from the prying eyes and fads and fashionable foodie trends of the rest of the capital, has had Lamberts, a friendly boutique spot 2 minutes walk from the station. One of the blessings of visiting a restaurant you know next to nothing about is an open mind - an open mind that too often in this city is closed within minutes of arrival. But fortunately, and delightfully, Lamberts turned out to be rather good.
There were lots of things to get excited about on the menu last night. Crispy pork cheeks, wild mushrooms, halibut fillet - a step up from the kind of ingredients you normally get chucked at you in this price range (£7 starters, £14-£17 main courses). Already things were looking up, and this was despite the frankly bizarre decision to supply rapeseed oil in which to dip our (admittedly quite nice) house bread. The oil smelt, and tasted, of nothing - like cooking oil. Very unpleasant indeed.
All was forgiven with the arrival of the starters. My venison was divine - mostly carpaccio-rare but with enough searing on the extremities to bring out an astonishing strength of flavour. Beneath the deep red flakes of Bambi was a robust bean and aubergine pesto, notable in being the only aubergine dish I've been excited about in many years. Topped with baby watercress, this was a colourful and balanced plate of food, and a real achievement for £7. Similarly, a friend's octopus and black pudding was also a triumph, surf and turf Mediterranean bursting with fresh flavours.
The main courses, then, had a lot to live up to, and only just fell short. My lamb was perfectly cooked and seasoned, served on top of pleasantly crunchy beans and surrounded by nice soft boiled potatoes. It was competent where the starter had been exciting, and traditional where the venison was innovative. Of course, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it - I did - but this was more the kind of food you could get at, say, a decent conference banquet or 4-star hotel restaurant than the fireworks evident in the venison dish. Chips were good though.
For dessert, a huge slab of Montezuma chocolate torte arrived, next to a neat row of raw cherries steeped in alcohol. I'm not the world's biggest chocolate fan (no I don't know why I ordered it either), but even so this plate of food needed something additional - either ice cream or double cream - and the cherries were disappointingly bland. The chocolate itself was nice enough, but not so brilliant as to lift it into a successful dish. I imagine some people who favour chocolate above any other material on earth would think it was great, so I won't be too harsh, but it didn't really do much for me.
With a bottle of Pinot Noir and the suggested glass of Aleatica Italian dessert wine (£8, notes of blackberries and blueberries and dark summer fruit), the bill came to around £50 each. Perhaps not as cheap as I was expecting at first, but still very good value for cooking of this standard and it's not like we held back on the alcohol. Meals like this, in restaurants like this, give a warm fuzzy feeling inside - it makes me happy that Lamberts exists, and even more happy that on a muggy midweek in August almost every table was taken. There's hope for our fine city yet.