Ta­ble talk

It’s a re­lief when a new restau­rant in your neigh­bour­hood turns out to be a hit

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Guy Kelly

Guy Kelly at Le­van, Peck­ham

Le­van 12-16 Blen­heim Grove Lon­don SE15 4QL 020-7732 2256 lev­an­lon­don.co.uk Three cour­ses for two Around £55 with­out al­co­hol

IT WAS AN ITEM you prob­a­bly sidestepped (in­volv­ing as it did two of the great ana-phro­disi­acs in na­tional news­pa­per ar­ti­cles – point­less lists and things only Lon­don­ers care about), but ac­cord­ing to an an­nual com­pen­dium, Peck­ham is no longer the most de­sir­able place to live in the cap­i­tal. Lewisham is.

For the past two decades, Del Boy’s old stomp­ing ground had been un­der­go­ing a seem­ingly unstoppable trans­for­ma­tion. Derelict fac­to­ries turned into bars, yoga stu­dios and rooftop cin­e­mas. Empty units on Rye Lane, still a won­der­fully chaotic mile, sound­tracked by ven­dors hawk­ing ox­tails, dried fish and man­i­cures, be­came chic lit­tle eater­ies. A once-dis­missed neigh­bour­hood was get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, and just about main­tain­ing its edge in the process. But has that mo­men­tum now hit the buf­fers?

My girl­friend and I cer­tainly hoped not, hav­ing re­cently moved in. Would we ar­rive just as the area stopped be­ing ex­cit­ing, like get­ting to a wed­ding at 3am, stark sober, and watch­ing Un­cle Nigel start Proud Mary a cap­pella as the house lights go up? It was a very real, very First World worry. So imag­ine our joy when we stum­bled into Le­van, a new open­ing, prov­ing em­phat­i­cally that Peck­ham is far from stag­na­tion.

Le­van is a sec­ond site for chef Ni­cholas Balfe and his busi­ness partners, Mark Gurney and Matt Bush­nell, af­ter five years spent turn­ing Brix­ton’s Sa­lon from a pop-up into a con­sis­tently well re­viewed, al­ways-full restau­rant. They weren’t look­ing, but when a pop­u­lar lo­cal haunt in Peck­ham closed, its owner rang and of­fered them the lease di­rectly, ‘To stop it be­com­ing a Wa­haca, or some chain like that.’ Irony, I know.

The re­sult is some­where worth visit-

ing even if you’ve no busi­ness south of the river. Di­vided into a main room and a dinky bar area over­look­ing an open kitchen, cre­atives types fill the two dozen cov­ers, and record sleeves adorn the walls. The team are self-con­fessed ‘disco heads’, and as such named the new place af­ter their favourite DJ, the late New York pi­o­neer Larry Le­van.

They’re open for break­fast and lunch, but din­ner is best. Balfe is in­spired by Europe’s ‘bistron­omy’ move­ments. The em­pha­sis is on serv­ing clever, high-qual­ity, sea­sonal dishes with­out the at­ten­dant prices. Im­pres­sively, 90 per cent of waste and trim­mings is reused – even the steamed milk residue is rein­car­nated as curd.

On a Thurs­day, we found the place with fogged-up win­dows (gen­er­ally a sign that a good time’s be­ing had) and took a counter ta­ble, eye-to-eye with the kitchen team. The din­ner menu is a pam­phlet com­pared to the Ar­gos cat­a­logue of a wine list, but is as roomy as Mary Pop­pins’ bag. Fancy a small set menu? There’s one. Proper mains? Ab­so­lutely fine. Shar­ing plates? Why, we’ve plenty.

It be­gan well. Henry James once said the two most beau­ti­ful words an English speaker can hear are ‘sum­mer af­ter­noon’. Tolkien thought they were ‘cel­lar door’. Into that list I en­ter ‘comté fries’. They’re a Le­van spe­cial­ity: fin­gers of aged comté, the size of model trains, rolled in chick­pea flour, dropped in a fryer then stacked next to a dol­lop of saf­fron aioli. It’s cheesy chips, but the cheese is the chips.

All the shar­ing plates are em­i­nently or­der­able. Our cod crudo with grape­fruit and tar­ragon was im­mac­u­lately bal­anced. It doesn’t take a gas­tro­nomic ge­nius to know grape­fruit’s tang bright­ens a plate of raw cod like a beard trans­formed Prince Harry, but it takes skill and con­fi­dence to present it so nakedly.

On the same list, the ravi­oli came in a pad­dling pool of dashi (Ja­panese cook­ing stock) but­ter and lo­vage oil. It was al dente, re­fus­ing to spill its guts of sweet, nutty caramelised cele­riac un­til asked. On top, crispy roasted Jerusalem ar­ti­chokes were a wel­come con­trast.

Gurney, a warm and bearded pres­ence who pa­trolled the front of house, ran An­gela Hart­nett’s cel­e­brated Ital­ian, Café Mu­rano in St James’s, and the ser­vice at Le­van is ev­ery bit as at­ten­tive and knowl­edge­able as any­where in the West End – im­proved, even, by an in­for­mal­ity that never be­comes cloy­ing.

Gurney’s prom­ise of ‘the meati­est veg­e­tar­ian pie you’ll ever eat’ came good with a wedge of potato, black trompette and Vacherin. It was smoky and dense, then the Vacherin woke up and its creami­ness sub­dued the pep­per. My girl­friend’s roast hal­ibut was the op­po­site: light and del­i­cate, with Jura’s fa­mous vin jaune lift­ing the lot.

For pud­ding (sold by the fact the comté fries chef was mak­ing them), an ice-cold pump­kin sor­bet that cut through all its pre­de­ces­sors, and a dough­nut choux bun with rich espresso and hazel­nut cream.

Enough. The point was made. We slipped back into the streets of south Lon­don sat­is­fied. You still don’t care, I know, but if Le­van’s any­thing to go by, re­ports of Peck­ham’s death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated. Phew.

Grape­fruit’s tang bright­ens a plate of raw cod like a beard trans­formed Prince Harry

Right The espresso and hazel­nut choux bun.

Be­low Caramelised cele­riac ravi­oli with Jerusalem ar­ti­choke and dashi but­ter

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