Last Saturday night I repaired to something that used to be one of South London's best kept secrets, a restaurant with no signage and just an intercom through which you negotiate entry. It's called Upstairsand I loathed it. Let me count the ways...
I know that it's probably asking too much for staff to appear actually keen to take coats but I find it a bit unsettling to hang around trying to offload the outer vestments. I also quite understand that restaurants with a "buzz" are...er...quite the thing but I'd honestly prefer to be able to communicate in speech rather than sign language while waiting in the crowded bar. And when you ask when your table will be ready, it's really much, much better if the waiter doesn't reply that he doesn't have a clue.
So far, so average. But this is the story of a restaurant that did some very good things, if the reviews are to be believed, when it first opened. When we ordered a bottle of white wine at the bar - and not the cheapest one on the list but a respectable Viognier - I really didn't expect it to be opened and poured, straight away, into two glasses which were shoved in our general direction. Having encountered two corked bottles in the space of a week, I don't just expect to be asked to taste I also regard it as minimal courtesy to the people who are paying the wage bill.
A few days later, as I was nodding approval of a bottle in Polpo I mentioned to the waitress that as it was under screwcap (or Stelvin as the closure snobs would have it) that it was pretty darned unlikley to be corked. "But it could have lost condition," she remarked. Bloody hell! This is true and I was very glad, for once, to be put firmly in my box by someone who appeared to be not much more than fourteen. Actually, this happens quite a lot to be honest. I don't mind at all.
Later, at our table, a carafe of red was poured with no opportunity to taste. And this time it was dispensed by the manager.
This lack of courtesy (which, to my mind, equates to "these punters don't have a fucking clue so what's the point?") was enough to poison my mind. I was, as a result, perfectly prepared to hate the food but, in the event, it was pretty good.
Okay, the portions were virtually homeopathic and I say this as someone who generally has great difficulty in clearing the average restaurant plate. However, the dishes concocted by Upstairs chef Oisin, a Louth man by birth, demonstrated that there is real skill in the kitchen - but that it is bedevilled by portion control and sheer stinginess.
A combination of Jerusalem artichoke with what I guess was fresh goat's cheese and toasted hazelnuts was subtle and pretty close to sublime were it not for the nuts getting a rather too fiery roasting. And a miniscule piece of de-boned skate with silky parnsip puree and parsnip crisps was pretty well faultless. Even a skimpy dish of butternut squash (yawn) ravioli was delicate (yes, really!) and sweetly delicious.
My London companion was enthusing about the value at this stage. £25 for two courses. Value? Value? Sorry, but this is Brixton. I know there's bugger all competition but it's only a stiff walk to The Canton Arms in Stockwell or Lambeth (depending on how your estate agent is likely to describe it). I'm sorry (no, not really) but twenty-five bloody quid for two miniscule if well cooked courses is not value at all. Especially when the whole general attitude in the place seems to be predicated on the management's ill-founded notion, L'Oreal-like, that they are simply worth it. They aren't.
It was packed, of course, which just goes to show that a restaurant can live for ages on a reputation that may once have been well deserved. Especially in somewhere like Brixton that has enough youngish middle-class, aspirational idiots who want to be able to stagger home after a wildly overpriced meal in a place that they (mistakenly, surely?) still consider to be cool.