They say never go back, but when it comes to excellent restaurants I see no reason not to revisit again and again.
Once such place is Albert’s Table, in South Croydon. I was first alerted to them by a Jay Rayner column, so we visited back in September 2011. We’ve been a fair few times since, and at the end of a rainy Saturday in November, we went again. Because we could.
I know people are rather disparaging about Croydon, but there really is no need. It is multicultural, with good bits and bad bits, just like any other town. South End – or Restaurant Row as it is known – isn’t pretty, and lots of places there have a high turnover, but you know that the ones that manage to stay are very good. They have to be.
Albert’s Table opened in 2008, and they are still going strong. The owner and head chef is Joby Wells, grandson of the restaurant’s namesake. You can have a look at him cooking on their website. The one of him cooking steak just makes me crave some bread to soak up all the buttery juices.
To quote Inside Croydon
“Chef and owner Joby Wells didn’t always want to be a chef. After high school he went to university, graduating in mechanical engineering. It was while studying he worked as a commis chef in the kitchens of the halls of residence, and it was here that he realised what he wanted to do.
He started working in some of the best kitchens that London had to offer, including the Oxo Tower and La Trompette. After seven years in a high-pressure cooking environment, Wells decided that the time was right to strike out on his own.”
I have to say that I am very glad he did.
The cooking celebrates fresh, local British produce, and the menu is seasonal. I like going in to see what’s new on the menu, and find out what vegetable is going to feature this time. You do not expect to get Jerusalem artichokes and salsify in South Croydon, but perhaps we should.
It remains a calm and quiet restaurant. It doesn’t have hushed tones, or a stilted atmosphere, far from it, but it just feels like the town outside has been firmly left behind.
The staff is welcoming, and well trained, but not intrusive. None of this hovering around, asking if you are alright every few minutes. There will be a subtle refilling of your water glass, or a quiet suggestion to maybe try a little butter on the complimentary gougeres (we did) but that’s it. I keep saying that I really need to learn how to make those at home.
There is always indecision about the menu. I used to be able to decide by choosing things that I would never cook at home, but as I have become far more adventurous in my cooking, I have rather been hoist by my own petard. Oh calamity.
Eventually we managed to choose. S chose more quickly than I, so the lovely waitress, Laura, had to come back again, but eventually we got there.
Look at this.
Cornish Lobster & brandy Soufflé (+£5)
Short crust tart of Dorset crab, rouille dressing and fine leaves
Poached wood pigeon with mountain lentils, red wine and shaved chestnuts
Roast onion, Kernel ale & ham hock broth, with a warm grain mustard brioche
Escabeche of Cornish mackerel with beetroot puree, fresh basil and poached quail eggs
Tortellini of truffle potato, and shaved Wiltshire truffle, and Mornay sauce (+£5)
Difficult to choose!
We both decided to try the Lobster Soufflé to start, because we could. Lobster is something I definitely don’t cook at home. On the one hand, someone else can have all the faff, but I also have a contact allergy to fish/crustaceans, so I’ll just give that a miss.
The soufflé was so very good. Piping hot, so I let some of the steam out, and with a good crust at the edges. There was a nice contrast between the fluffy and creamy interior, and the crispier outer edges.
Chunks of lobster were all the way through, suspended in the egg mixture. I will admit I do not like things that are too ‘eggy’ but this was just right.
Then came the mains. I had a really hard time choosing from these. I just didn’t want to miss out on anything.
Pheasant; roast breast & cannelloni of leg, with red cabbage, garlic cream, and roast parsnip
Loin of aged Hereford beef, with a little mushroom and tarragon pie, char-grilled leeks and red wine sauce (+£5)
(If you prefer your beef well done, we recommend our eight-hour braise of feather blade)
Roast haunch of Knole Park venison (served pink) with chanterelle mushrooms, root vegetables and crisp suet, venison & chicken liver dumplings
Romney Marsh lamb; Glazed shoulder & roast rack of with fried polenta, Jerusalem artichoke, scorched onion and buttered kale
Atlantic cod, with red wine onions, butter roast salsify and brandade croquette
Fish of the day with mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, parsley, caper & lemon relish and a chilli and anchovy oil
Roasted Jerusalem artichokes, scorched onions & grilled leeks, with hazelnut and caper scones, and red wine
I chose the Hereford beef, and S chose the venison. Then next door’s dinner came to their table, and the lamb looked oh so very good. Yes, I am well aware that these are very definitely first world problems.
It was the mushroom and tarragon pie that swung me, though the Jerusalem artichokes did put up a struggle, winking at me with their windy ways, but the fungi won. It’s something I never have at home due to husband being allergic, so it does tend to call out to me on a menu.
What can I say. Yet again, the meal did not disappoint. If you like your beef well done, the menu politely suggests that you order the eight hour braise of featherblade, and I may well try that next time as I adore blade.
Be warned, the roast beef is rare, but it is expertly cooked. With a lot of aged beef, there can be a very strong back taste, almost liverish, which isn’t to my liking at all but this had none of that. Just a good, strong beef flavour, almost caramelised on the outside, and with a proper texture to it. This was an animal that had done some work in its lifetime.
The chargrilled leeks were beautifully sweet, and tender, and oh, my little pie! Beautifully flaky pastry, with a buttery finish, and savoury mixed mushrooms all bedded down into what tasted like a creamy tarragon sauce at the bottom. Butter, mushrooms, tarragon. You simply cannot go wrong with that.
The venison was similarly excellent. I tasted a small piece, together with some of the light chicken liver dumpling that accompanied it, and both were delicious. The venison had a fresh, delicate taste, not gamey, which I know might disappoint some but for me it was perfect.
We always say we might not go for dessert, and then the menu comes round and…well you can guess what happens next.
Dessert, that’s what.
Simon had a Cox’s apple, blackberry and almond slice with vanilla ice-cream
and mine consisted of all the dark chocolate in the surrounding area.
It was a hot chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce and frozen hazelnut parfait. It was also a light sink. I appear to have photographed a light absorbing entity on my plate. I really would have like this to have been served in a bowl because I hated to leave any of that sauce behind on a hard to scrape clean plate.
See? Light absorption. I could have eaten that sesame wafer many times over.
We honestly did not have room for coffee.
It’s such a nice place to go, and forget the world outside for a few hours. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch them getting better, and better.