It had been a generally crap day until I discovered what eventually turned out to be the most exciting dinner since, I think, Joel Robuchon, or the trio of Foie Gras I guzzled in Toulouse. The delightful JoJo dragged me down the still ever-so-slightly dodgy Acre Lane, past Tesco, past the seemingly ever-empty if intriguing Bamboula, past Lidl and in fact, we almost walked past Upstairs itself. Tucked down a sideroad, on the corner where Opus cafe stands, is a wee doorbell. Past that door, is the stairway to foodie heaven.
Owner Philippe Castaing is the brains behind Brixton Green – championing the SW2 neighbourhood as a “silicon valley” for green business in Britain. Oh, and he’s also catered for Elton and Gordon Ramsey. Needless to say, as a pet project, Upstairs comes with a pedigree.
We began on the first floor, a candlelit, cosy cocktail room with a small but perfectly formed bar and a log fire crackling in the tiled hearth. I drowned a Helsinki Sling in honour of my birthplace, a rich pear pulp softened with Vodka. Jojo demolished a London-themed beverage which soothed with a sweet lychee balm and lashings of gin.
Candlelit flickred, the fire crackled, I was enamoured and we hadn’t even seen the menu yet! The barman downstairs will escort drinks and persons upstairs to their tables into yet another cosy room, with yet another fireplace and discreetly chatty diners. It’s all rather romantic, best experienced with someone who makes you sappy. The gramophone dial is set firmly to cool jazz with some obligatory French chansons d’amour thrown in for good measure.
So, food then. There is a set menu with two courses for £27 or three for £33. Three starters, three mains and three desserts means less hassle fussing over the menu and more time to eat and sigh wistfully to Louis Armstrong.
We were brought an amuse bouche of cool cucumber jelly, topped with a fiery horseradish mousse and pea shoots. Not sure where the cucumber jelly trend came from, but this was a dream compared to its Westow House counterpart (fear not Westow, I love you still!)
I began with squid and mackerel on a bed of hot and sour cabbage. Tender, melting, sweet and piquant, it was perfect. Jojo had confit rabbit that oozed flavour with heritage carrots and a vibrant rhubarb that offset the subtle gameyness of the rabbit nicely.
The lamb in my main almost made me have kittens. (Lamb kittens. Odd? Hmm…) Tender as freshly churned butter and just as sweet, it was ruby rare and juicy, sat on a bed of smokey, silky mash and dotted about with a clear, pepperminty jelly. Beneath the thick slices of meat lay shreds of crispier lamb which gave the whole dish great texture.
Jojo had Pollock, densely flavoured which I find it rarely is, with creamy haricto beans, left with just enough bite in them and braised fennel. Nommy.
I cheated by having the cheese platter, but considering how many good restaurants royally cock up something like a cheese platter I was delighted. A rich unctuous goats cheese was teamed with a Comte and instead of quince jam, it was served with stewed, confit quinces and a fig nougat.
Jojo’s pud I admit to not remembering as I was enjoying the Fleurie (Domaine La Madone) so much, but it did come with a dollop of fresh white wine granita on top and poached pears.
Service was charming and spot on. The fireplace just sort of seals the deal. Plus the fact that you sit within yards of Lidl but could be in a downtown Parisian gourmet supperclub. Worst is its been around for a while, but it feels like you’ve just discovered it.
And all this just goes to show that Jay Rayner had it on the button when he called Brixton Village the most exciting, radical venture on the British restaurant scene right now. It’s not just the village mate, its the whole damn neighbourhood, starting Upstairs!