Wednesday, 30 March 2016
The Camberwell Arms, Camberwell
"Would you like to sit at the bar or at a table at the back? I should warn you, there are lots of children."
Claire Roberson, charmingly laid-back front of house at the Camberwell Arms, whom I first met when she was one half of the now sadly missed Mayfields in Hackney (though it's hard to be sad for too long when you realise its replacement is the exquisite Pidgin), knows that sitting amidst the bedlam of a family restaurant in South London on a bank holiday weekend is not to everyone's tastes. But this is the new reality of Camberwell in 2016, gentrified if not quite yet genteel, with its gastropubs and artisan pizza joints and buggy-friendly table spacings. A lot has changed in a very short space of time.
I would have quite happily sat at the bar, actually, were it not for the fact the lighting was slightly better at the back. Yes, I'm one of those people now, very much enjoying the novelty of my photos no longer looking like medical waste, and happy to make life for my dining companions even more difficult if there's a chance of getting a good Flickr album out of it. Plus the children seemed fairly well behaved anyway, so that's win-win as far as I was concerned.
As well as boasting favourable lighting conditions, the Camberwell Arms - you may have heard - also serves some excellent food. These sweetbreads for example, simply and confidently presented, lightly breadcrumbed and laid on top of a zingy wild garlic and hazelnut pesto. Sweetbreads (along with pigeon, and oysters) are one of my Must Order items when I see them on a menu, and I'm happy to say these stood up next to the best of them.
Even more exciting though was this courgette and yoghurt soup with brown butter, an unpromising label for a surprisingly leftfield dish. Thick and cheesy, studded with what I think were chunks of pickled courgettes, the best way I can describe it is to say it was a bit like eating a bowl of cheese and pickle sandwich soup. And I suppose whether you'd like it depends on how much you like cheese and pickle sandwiches. I happen to like cheese and pickle sandwiches a lot.
The smoky pieces of charcoal-roasted squid in this main course had two major things going for them. Firstly, they had all the textural benefits of being sensitively barbequed, with crunchy bits of thin tentacle and lovely large chunks of tender flesh. Secondly, they were all doused in a beautiful green coriander and almond sauce, which created a vaguely South Indian effect. Clever stuff, and a generous portion too.
Not being able to resist yet more offal, I asked for the "ox heart kebab" for a main, a clever take on the kind of thing top kebab merchants FM Mangal (just over the road) are famous for. Despite a couple of inedibly gristly spots in the heart, the rest of it was - like the squid - irresistably smoky from the grill, and the yoghurt and chilli sauces both did their jobs well. I should say the "fleatbread" was a bit soggy and scone-y for my liking, but still had a nice flavour. And it's always nice to see any kitchen trying something a bit risky.
Clearly we weren't going to end such a nice meal prematurely, and so on to desserts. The first was an Easter special, hot cross bun with Seville marmalade ice cream, a densely sticky and sugary bun containing near-perfect house ice cream.
And apricot jam ice cream was also very accomplished, not a trace of ice crystal and studded with chunks of jammy fruit. I always appreciate when places go to the effort of making their own ice cream - the results are invariably lovely.
"Invariably lovely", in fact, is quite a good way of describing Camberwell Arms as a whole. This grand old building is that rarest of things, a proper gastropub in the most traditional Eagle Farringdon sense of the word, just as happy to serve you a £3.90 pint of Brockley Pale Ale while you read the newspaper at the front bar, as wowing with a great value Mediterranean-British menu at the tables at the back. On top of all that, you can even reserve so you don't even have to worry about getting in line. Camberwell is very lucky to have its food, its service and its lovely diffuse sky-lighting. I highly recommend a visit, and bringing a camera.
The Camberwell Arms stands a very good chance of being in the next version of the app. But if you're in the area, see how remarkably diverse are Camberwell's dining options by using my app.