‘The Crystal Palace also featured the first public conveniences, the Retiring Rooms. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use them, and for this they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. This is the origin of the euphemism “to spend a penny…”’
‘THE EXHIBITION ROOMS’ wears very different expressions. At street level, it is urban and open and apparently inspired by ‘Raffles’. Rather curious to find a slice of Singapore kitsch in the vicinity of Penge. Cast iron fireplaces cling midway to the walls like paintings. Teak tables are generous. Glowing jellyfish chandeliers and large mirror panels which look like windows reflect the nod in name to the Great Exhibition of 1851 (actually held in Hyde Park). Down stairs backlit in orange, a decadent, purple space flows. Loos are unisex. Louis XV style chairs are swathed in zebra fabric. This culminates in a low, candlelit 'cave' dressed in suede with a wall-to-wall leather mattress.
A Latvian mixologist with bibulous knowledge operates from a small but seriously stocked bar. His Spitfire martini was a soft sedative. My purple-trousered friend, nicknamed ‘Lucy Liu’ by the daring manager, chose a pert, slightly sweet, Plymouth Gin and tonic. As well as wine and cocktails, I am a water fanatic. I have visited the Buxton factory and the spring at Vittel of my own free well (sorry, will). At The Exhibition Rooms, I drank enough H2O to irrigate several countries. This was because 50pence from each sale of attractive canister proceeds to improving supply in Africa.My collage of Freshly Picked Cornish Crab with Green Papaya, Mango, Coriander and Spring Onion Salad was as busy and bright as it sounds, and ultimately refreshing. It was tamed to some extent by umami suffusing, deeply aromatic Nam Jim dressing.Liu was pleased that her pan-fried Queenie Scallops were delicately cooked, although she would have prefered them raw. A lick of hazelnut oil added an interesting, savoury surfeit.
If ever a wine could be chirpy, then our Hungarian Pinot Gris was just that. Described as 'quite full and rip', the only problem was the format it veered to our table in. By supplying only 250ml measures, one’s head can feel tender come the sobering brightness of day. An Asian influence continued to creep onto the plate in the main courses. The Queens County actress had Twice Cooked Pork Belly with Asian Pear Salad, Soy and Ginger Reduction. The belly was moist and cosseting, although it was a surprise to find it swaddled in breadcrumbs. Apparently this procedure occurs after it is braised to "protect it". My almost downy Roasted Pollack was scattered with a clammy duo: Sautéed and Razor, and Mussels too (which sounds like a wacky film title). The sauce was a balanced, nervy composition: fresh Tomato, vivid Parsley, White Wine and Garlic.
Glancing around the softly lit space, it seemed people were wrapped around every widely spaced table – a grand turnout at The Exhibiton considering it was a damp, arctic Wednesday. An innovatively presented, post modern smorgasbord of British cheeses and bittersweet grapes came with a new item of gastronomy in my book: couscous bread. It resembled Yorkshire pudding in all but brittle, crunchy, easily fractured texture.
After a brief hibernation in the cave, it was all over (or almost). Other than dining collaborator, the Emmy actress had one more role to play in SE19. She wheeled out that old chestnut beloved of her critics – to feign loss of a favourite item of clothing. The restaurant responded admirably, summoning every pair of hands to search for the Star’s scarf (also purple).
It turned out to be up her sleeve...
I enjoyed The Exhibition Rooms a great deal. Built with - and intended for - fun rather than pretence, it seems to have easily courted the affection of the locals. As critics glean admission, it will no doubt establish a popularity for its playful philosophy and transparent value far outside its postcode.
'The Exhibition Rooms' - Westow Hill, London, London. SE19 1TX. T. (020) 8761 1175
Nearest Station: Crystal Palace