8 May 2008

Brown Derby Day

‘The mouth, after all, is a sex organ. It's an intimate place to ask someone to trust your skills enough to allow passage and an open mind, enough to savour, chew and swallow. N'est pas?’
[Shuna Fish Lydon, Eggbeater]
RESTAURANT REVIEWERS should encompass the whole gamut. From missions chez Michelin to a date with tripe, or even a purging combination, a breadth of focus is more interesting then a widening waistline gleaned solely from the hottest tickets. I fondly remember Victor Lewis Smith’s scythe-sharp critique of a Little Chef somewhere in Lancaster. In his distalgic departure into the roadside institution, the ‘satirist, prankster’ describes an encounter with ‘two sad, sad sausages, surely the wurst I've ever eaten, with less flavour than roadkill stuffed into a condom.’ Adding to the tangible pain, Smith probably had to fight the Guardian’s proofreader to playfully scribe ‘wurst’.
In homage to Lewis’ fearless foray, I picked my way through a labyrinth populated by summery sixth form students and mild-mannered security guards. The objective: to have lunch at ‘Phoenix’, training restaurant of Lewisham College. I discovered the venue whilst Googling The Phoenix in Putney last week, and within days the idea to visit galvanised into an ever so slightly nervously anticipated reservation...
The dining room is a large bright rectangle. It is minimal with one lime coloured wall, a soundproofing grey-blue carpet and chairs which nod to Charles Rennie Macintosh. A tub of lilies adorn a reasonably equipped brushed metal bar. Deep oblong windows are just too high to see out of when seated and are in shape reminiscent of a cross-channel ferry. They frame elegant Edwardian houses and mature trees. Whilst awkardly dispensing doughy rolls, our endearingly giggly waitress, from NVQ level One (Two were in the kitchen) tells us she would like to see these demolished. She refuses to elaborate.
Music is taught classical, filled with punchily arresting detail. We have gin and tonics, or rather too much tonic and a flinch of gin; thirst quenching but lacking that almost tranquillising effect a good G&T can provide. We look at a menu offering a couple of starters, five main courses and four desserts. It becomes clear that if the written descriptions come true, we will be eating well for about £10 each.
A smiling waiter pours a little Malvern to taste, a charming idea and something I occasionally do in jest to enliven jaded customers, although I think irony was missing in this gesture. I nod politely and glasses fill.

Two salmon fishcakes arrive, small, burger like patties, pretty pink inside and succulent. On top, a fringe of salad pricked with chives and beside, three reservoirs of diced olive oil licked vegetables. This appetite-awakening starter is rinsed by half a bottle of pert, flint struck Pouilly-Fumé from 'purist' Claude Michot (picture). At £6.50, the mark-up is approximately three pence on everywine. The downside is that it takes an intervention from teacher to open the bottle. It is then poured from within the airborne cooler, presumably to catch drips. We see the sweetness in this gauche manoeuvre.

The music morphs into a light salsa. There are about ten other diners including a slightly portly Pumblechook who looks like a regular.

We are asked if we would like to plunder the main courses straight away, or take time out. A few moments won’t harm a waiting braised lamb shank or fish stew, so we open the wine list. Laurent-Perrier NV is £25 (£14.99 less than Majestic). I spot a Crozes-Hemitages from the supreme ’99 vintage in the Northern Rhône, from the large but reliable Caves des Clairmont. The ’05 is available from Waitrose for £9, and so this rested version offers prime value. Subtly minted, with a little bloody game and still impressive damson jelly fruit, it retained just enough power to efficiently coalesce with my succulent shank. This was served with crisp deep fried cauliflower and braised fennel which kept its crunchy integrity.

I have a sweet tooth. I will never turn down pudding, and I believe I hanker after chocolate more then many women. I even buy slabs of cooking chocolate, believing this offers secretly great value.
I was particularly impressed with my father’s tidy glossed strawberry tart. A big bite of this, and then a rapid clear-up of the profiterole like choux base of my Brown Derby, named after the landmark restaurant in L.A. which featured a dome shaped like 'a brown derby hat', showcased the pastry chef’s talent. The foundation of this indulgence was skilfully, airily baked, demonstrating a lightness of touch, decorated with smaller turrets of piped cream.

Excellent coffee served in elegant crockery with cream and hot milk drew the meal to a close.

Overall, within the bounds of a state subsidised budget no doubt leading to the limited ingredients available (salmon appeared first in fishcakes, then secondly in my father’s fish stew which seemed to be bound within an albeit lighter version of his soup) the cooking was carefully assured. Whilst not demonstrating seriously honed flair, what I ate was flavoursome, aesthetically well-groomed and offering tremendous value and a rounded sense of promise. The waiters however, although good-humoured, desperately lack polish. They were uneasy in their roles, partly as a result of constant supervision by their tutors.

Arriving in anticipation of errors, I left feeling that I may have unearthed the best value eatery in the capital.

The Phoenix - Lewisham Way Campus, London. SE4 1UT T. T. 020 8694 3294
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