Monday 24 April 2017

Sparrow, Lewisham

To find a location as utterly unlikely for a restaurant as Sparrow, I have to reach far back into the mists of time to when, in a remarkably prescient bit of property development, the old Bethnal Green Town Hall was converted into a 5-star hotel and played host to Nuno Mendes' Viajante. Even now, Cambridge Heath is not an area of town you'd happily stroll around after sunset; back then (this being 2010), it was even more spicy, the route from the station involving a rather intimidating walk past boarded-up car mechanics and a strip club. Actually, I think that might still be there. But now, with Bethnal Green and Paradise Garage to the south, and the Marksman and Morito to the West along Hackney Road, it no longer feels like too much a weird place to go for your dinner.

With that in mind, I have a feeling the brains behind Sparrow know exactly what they're doing. Lewisham may never be the most beautiful borough of London but there are blocks of high-rise residential flats shooting up faster than new season asparagus, and excellent transport links (I'm beginning to sound like a bloody estate agent) mean that even if there isn't anywhere obvious to meet for a pre-dinner drink (though the Wetherspoons does a good selection of craft beers) you can at least have a cocktail in town before jumping on the DLR.

Still, though, it's a bit of a shock to the system when you first see the place. Beneath the brutalist gaze of the Lewisham Shopping Centre, on what is essentially a small part of the A20/A21 gyratory, next to four lanes of traffic, is not where too many people would think of placing a Modern British restaurant, and yet there it is, nervous and trembling as the lorries and buses roll past. Inside, fortunately, is a little less like a bus stop than first appearances would suggest, but the large, unadorned windows offer little shield from the visuals of eating on a slip-road, and, when the front door opens, there's little protection from the audio either.

The food, though, is good. Mushroom and courgette bruchettas are hearty Italianette fare, nicely seasoned and with a bit of goat's cheese on top to lift them.

Brown shrimp and kohlrabi salad was lovely too, colourful and crunchy and with a salty-citrussy dressing that bound it all together beautifully.

Best of the small plates though was soft-boiled eggs with pork and anchovy relish, an incredibly clever and umami-rich little snack that was that rarest of things - genuinely enjoyable and (as far as I know) genuinely innovative, like nothing much I'd tried before. It wasn't just the relish itself that impressed (which was a bit like a chunky bagna cauda) but the quality of the eggs (just look at that yolk) and the little wisps of crispy shallots which added a lovely touch of texture. A perfect little dish, and one that would not be at all out of place on the menu at St John, where the Sparrow team cut their teeth.

I'm not the world's biggest risotto fan (you've cooked some rice, well done) so the fact I enjoyed this next dish as much as I did probably means that anyone pre-disposed to bowls of al-dente rice would be head over heels with it. As, indeed, seemed the rest of my table.

And finally from the smaller plates, fried chicken "tulips" with satay sauce. I'm not sure what was tulip-like about it, it seemed like a normal supreme to me, and the satay sauce was fine, but familiar to the point of ready-meal-sachet. Also, the breadcrumb(?) coating on the chicken needed a lot more seasoning; it was pretty bland, and compared to what had come before, strangely unadventurous. I mean, fried chicken and satay sauce? Who cares?

In fact much the same criticisms - a slightly clumsy approach matched with rather unadventurous ingredients - could be levelled at most of the meaty dishes. There wasn't much wrong with the way this pork belly was cooked - the skin was a bit chewy but seasoned properly, and the flesh was nice and moist - it just felt a bit like the kind of thing you've seen a thousand times before and pubs up and down the country. Harissa is not a particularly inspiring accompaniment either.

"Malt duck" sounded intriguing enough on paper but turned out to be a fairly standard roast leg of duck (not sure what was supposed to be malty about it), with a saggy skin and a couple of bits of braised chicory. Fine, you know, but straightforward bordering on plain.

And there was certainly plenty of this next dish, but again, we couldn't tell what was "bang bang" about it, just that it was a huge lump of underseasoned (and pretty underflavoured) cow that none of us could really be bothered to finish. A couple of sweaty bits of aubergine rolling around the bottom of the bowl weren't enough to distract us, either.

Desserts were fine, but call me a cynical jaded food blogger but when I see panacotta and chocolate cake on a menu it just makes me think that somebody on pastry wants an easy life.

Cheeses were good, though - particularly the Isle of Mull cheddar which had an almost Comté-like complexity of flavour.

OK so, the larger meaty mains and the desserts were a bit disappointing, and I can't give them too much of an easy ride for that - these did, after all, constitute the bulk of the meal. But enough went well with the smaller plates that made me think that if Sparrow concentrate on where their strengths lie - namely lighter dishes where vegetables are the main ingredients - then they'll very soon hit upon a winning formula. The up and downs of this brave new little restaurant are, I'm sure, just teething pains of a kitchen who haven't quite figured out what their audience is, and are trying to be all things to all people. Unfortunately for them, there's no template set for a Modern British restaurant on a dual-carriageway flyover in Lewisham; trailblazing ain't easy.

So I wish them all the best for the next crucial few months, and, simply for having the sheer brass balls to open anything here at all, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on the final score. No, of course they're not perfect, but there's a very good chance that one day they might be at the very least a great deal better, and for that reason Londoners - and in particular anyone local to this bizarre chunk of concrete jungle in SE13 - have a lot to look forward to.


Our meal at Sparrow was kindly organised by the PR and we didn't pay.


Richard Dixon said...

As a "local" living in (cough) Blackheath it's good to see this has gone down well. I've lived in the area for 10+ years now and Lewisham has never held any "destination dining" charms, really. Maybe it was how they were run, maybe it was the lack of a captive audience, but two Vietnamese restaurants opened and failed here in the last 2 years which is suggestive, maybe, of an unadventurous local dining public in the area (I'm happy to be proven wrong here both now and in the forthcoming months/years). Polpo was planned and then never happened - so having a good new venue for eating (views notwithstanding - for now) is great news.

Given Deptford High Street's current green shoots with Winemakers and the excellent Artusi on its way amongst others, I'd hope that given the investment in and around the station and a successful tenure here that it might start to make more brave restaurateurs make the leap to Lewisham. One thing's for sure though - you'll be buggered if you'll get anything as decent or inventive as this up Blackheath. Oh no, Sir.

Millennial X said...

Wo0o0o0o0o scary ol' Cambridge Heath! (As someone who goes out around there fairly regularly - that made me laugh!) Sounds like a nice place though.

Yep it's me again said...

Some nice things on this menu, it's a shame the meat was not more, I guess this can be fixed quiet easily, taking the scores up a few notches. I will say though, risotto is more than just rice, once you make a few and get the bug, you will be involved in a sort of cult. Stock police, direction of stirring, quality and type of rice, just a few of the things I have learnt about. Gordon is your stock person, Jamie(sorry) is the risotto king. Best risotto I ever had was in Rome, (courgette flower) cant remember the name of the restaurant. Anyway Brockley Market is up the road from Sparrow (sort of) so you could have a nice Saturday that's for sure. Is it me or does Sparrow need a window cleaner? I cant say Sparrow without doing a cockney accent:)Thanks another cool review, keep em coming. One last thing could you find the best Caribbean place in London please?

Rachel@GameVillage said...

The plate looks interesting!! But I felt the quantity should have been more

Ronan said...

Lived v close to Cambridge Heath for 8 years, it is completely calm and normal, and pleasant. Never even saw a bad incident let alone felt unsafe.