Small plate restaurants are no longer the reserve of trendy neighbourhoods in central and north London, writes Holly O’Mahony…
Over the past few years, a smattering have opened in zone 2 boroughs south of the river – from Deptford’s Marcella and Peckham’s 200 Rye Lane, to Brixton’s Naughty Piglets, Salon Brixton, and Smoke and Salt. It’s therefore understandable that the trend has spread to Lewisham – a neighbourhood regarded as being on the verge of becoming seriously hip. Fulfilling the small plate dream in this neck of the woods is husband-and-wife team Terry Blake and Yohini Nandakumar, whose restaurant Sparrow has been open for just under two years.
Terry and Yohini were no newbies to fine dining when they opened Sparrow, boasting previous experience at Bao, St. John, Pollen Street Social and The Square between them. At Sparrow, the small plates draw on flavours from the Middle East and Southeast Asia as well as traditional British fare.
Sparrow’s positioning on busy Rennell Street means guests seated next to its floor-to-ceiling length window look out onto a view of fast-flowing traffic – which is unfortunate. Meanwhile, the restaurant itself is housed in a single-storey building with non-descript, black exteriors, giving it the outward appearance of a faded nightclub, save for the warm glow behind the misted windows. This makes stepping inside Sparrow all the more appealing: the buzzy eatery is lit by candles and low-hanging lights, and furnished with neatly cut wooden tables, an open kitchen and home-style shelving with what looks like recipe books in reaching distance of the pans – as if the chefs might grab one for inspiration as they cook.
I’m shown to my table by a very attentive waiter who asks me twice whether I want the menu explained before my companion even arrives. When she does, we dive straight in: she orders the apero of the day and I, opt for the cocktail. Sadly, both of these here-today-gone-tomorrow drinks were let down by their sickly sweetness. My cocktail – a mango gin sour – had a synthetic taste to it, like drinking a liquid gummy sweet. The apero – a turmeric bellini – seemed to have a ratio favouring syrup to prosecco. We opted to share a bottle of wine next – a dry Accadia Consono Verdicchio di Jesi – which righted both wrongs.
To the food: we were advised that five small plates between two of us should suffice and that the dishes grew in size (and price) the further down the menu we ventured. A side note: once we’d ordered, the plates arrived one at a time, allowing us to fully dissect and discuss each dish before the next arrived – an ideal set-up when you’re in foodie company.
First up was a plate of olive tapenade with lemon zest flat bread. It was, in short, sublime. The swirl-shaped flat bread so light, thin and fluffy you could scoff several and still crave more. Meanwhile the tapenade was zingy, lemony and perfectly oily. My only regret is that we didn’t stop our waiter taking away the remainder of the tapenade once we’d finished the bread – it would have made a far more sumptuous accompaniment to the Bermondsey frier, a slab of crispy, mouth-watering fried cheese that itself came with a bland romesco sauce.
A plate of Jerusalem artichoke salad was complemented by its creamy, salty hazelnut pesto. Less impressive, though, were our two larger plates: braised lamb shoulder with duck fat potatoes; and beef cheek pie. The lamb of the former was generous in size and simply dressed, but ‘duck fat potatoes’ promise, in my mind, a crispness which was not delivered in these spuds that came drowned in a watery gravy. Meanwhile, the potently meaty beef cheek pie left us wishing we’d ordered something green to accompany it, or perhaps gone with the day’s special, a beef mass
A plate of char siu pork belly (usually £5) arrived on the house, perhaps from a kitchen concerned with our choice of dishes. These little chunks of 50/50 fat-to-pork came lightly glazed in sweet sauce and proved themselves to be a menu highlight not to be missed.
Of the two desserts we shared, the baked cheesecake with rum raisins was pleasant but a little eggy and ultimately forgettable. The affogato, on the other hand, was the best I’ve ever had. The coffee was deep, bitter and rich, and offset impeccably by the salty, caramelly condensed milk ice cream. I’d fly back in a heartbeat just for another spoonful.
The plates might not be perfect, but one thing that is undeniable is the fact Terry and Yohini are doing wonders for Lewisham’s culinary scene with Sparrow. This is a restaurant worth flocking to.
2 Rennell Street