Wednesday, 7 May 2014
Jack Beer is a chef with a canny knack of picking the city's very hottest restaurants to work in. With a good stretch of time in the Clove Club under his belt, he next moved on to local favourite Peckham Bazaar, helping out in that tricky period of time where all the good reviews were flooding in and they needed a few more hands on deck.
Now he's in charge of his own fortunes at Artusi, an attractive little spot on Bellenden Road. The incredibly keenly-priced menu (no starters over £5, mains £13/£14) reads like a dream - I mean, who in their right mind wouldn't want to scoff down something called "skate with asparagus and wild garlic" or "roasted artichokes with bagna cauda"? Certainly nobody I know.
It's the details that matter in a place like this. House bread is sourdough from Brickhouse, just round the corner, and as anyone from these parts will already know, it's very nearly the best money can buy. I say 'nearly' because it's only thanks to those guys from Hedone and their annoying habit of making the very best bread in the entire world that everyone else has been pushed into second place, but this is still extremely good bread.
The first proper dishes to arrive were, and I know I'm prone to hyperbole but I stand by this assessment, faultless. Mortadella with fried crescentine paired the softest, most glorious ham with pillows of top-notch crispbread.
Seared ox heart had a great texture, not too chewy but with enough bite to remind you what it once had been, and a punchy caper and olive dressing gave it all a bit of colour, literally and metaphorically.
And wow, the roast artichokes. Each of these, golden brown and topped with flakes of salt and parsley, would have been impressive enough on their own. But they rested on a sauce so complex and beguiling - the tang of the sea, rich notes of dairy - that I'm not sure anything better has ever been done to an anchovy. I only hope chef Beer has no plans to remove these from the chalkboard at Artusi until the artichoke season is well and truly over, as they really are quite something.
Next to the starters, and in particular the artichokes and that anchovy sauce, some of the world's finest food would have compared badly. But there were more than just a few things wrong with the pasta dishes, not least of which the fact my friend's £10.50 portion appeared no different in size at all to my own £6. They even both came in the same size bowl.
In addition to that, her linguine was al-dente bordering on crunchy, and the clams and mussels looked a bit odd in there without their shells. This is a minor presentation point perhaps, and could be just a personal thing, but I never like the look of mussels outside their shells. They look like little orange eyeballs.
My braised lamb shoulder was incredibly salty, and given how battered my palate is after all these years of salty food, believe me this means it was very salty indeed. A shame, because you could tell that underneath all the seasoning the meat was lovely and soft and had a great flavour, and the pasta was, in contrast to the linguine, perfectly done.
Service was generally very good, but committed the cardinal sin of asking me to taste the wine that my female friend had ordered. Not very 2014. Also, although I'm not as anti-natural wine as some, the house prosecco had all the worst/best features of this controversial process, being simultaneously funky, cloudy and almost completely flat. Bit of an odd choice for the house pour.
But here's the thing - I really enjoyed my meal. Blips with service, the wine list and the preparation of pasta can easily be rectified - what you can't fake is the kind of personality, passion and style that, despite fairly obvious errors here and there, left us feeling we'd still eagerly return. A £30 a head bill, with service left up to us, merely reinforced this feeling. Welcome to Peckham, then, Artusi. You'll fit right in.