It was an item you probably side-stepped (involving as it did two of the great anaphrodisiacs 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 visiting 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.