I’m writing this review from a café/restaurant in Chelsea. It’s called Mona Lisa and if you stop by for lunch you can get a very respectable three courses for £11.75. The very idea of this fills me with joy. If you’re with a friend, you can then go mad with a couple of glasses of house red and a coffee and still escape with a smattering of change from £40.
Perhaps it’s the influence of my father. He was obsessed with finding restaurants that offered great value. Those ‘lunch for a fiver’ deals in newspapers in the 1990s had him in a sort of frenzy. A professional luncher, he walked up and down Fleet Street, where he worked as a City PR man, with paper vouchers pouring from his pockets and he could spend all weekend regaling one with tales of bargain lunches. All that eating and drinking did for him in the end, but I like to think that having perished from what I call long-lunchitis he is now relishing some heavenly deal at the El-Vino’s in the sky.
He would have shuddered at the news of how much lunch can cost these days in Bermondsey. Back when my dad was honing his lunch craft in the 1990s, Bermondsey was where you went at dawn to look for stolen antiques passing hands in the half light or where the commissioning of a broken pair of legs could be agreed for £25.
Now you can visit a restaurant there where two courses for two and a single glass of wine will set you back £135. Ouch indeed. I can almost feel a stirring in the graveyard.
You can witness this astonishingly legitimate goods-for-money exchange at Trivet, a restaurant recently opened by a charming Canadian called Jonny Lake – who was once head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck – and his former Fat Duck sommelier and now business partner Isa Bel.
The pair have created a beautiful restaurant of cloudy beige walls, indented shelves bearing antique pots, kettles and scales and oak panelling that sneaks round into the open kitchen and lends the pass the feel of a £50 million Chelsea kitchen. Which is a very nice feel, by the way.
The modest menu – five choices each of starter and main course – contrasts well with a Gutenberg Bible of a wine list – from which I picked a favourite Greek white – a glass of impeccable Assyrtiko from the Tselepos winery on the island of Santorini. This soothed me into a first course – more a canapé in terms of quantity – of a thing called a ‘sour cream and onion Puffini’. This is a sort of collapsible panini, in that it looks like a panini and it collapses as you pick it up. I did love it, though, with its salty bits of caviar, and a dip of frothy sabayon custard.
Then I was tempted by the simple intrigue promised by a plate of ‘chicken with a vinegar sauce’. It was quite the most perfect dish of chicken eaten away from my kitchen that I can imagine. Soft and flavourful, with crisp skin and the most sublime mashed potato, along with kale, charred shallots and little bites of turnip. A chicken, potato and kale dish for £29? That’s right: the glorious results of gentrification and the audacious ambition of chefs.
You really cannot fault the cooking of Jonny Lake – and he and his gang seemed to be prodding and propping at the pass with their tweezers for ages. If you can afford Trivet, God speed. Tuck into the wine list, eat a pud – but for God’s sake, don’t tell my dad about it.