I can’t tell you much about James Donnelly but I can tell you this. He likes a pop-up. And a pickle.
Actually, to be more accurate, it’s more that James likes a “moveable restaurant” and a bit of well-placed vinegar. He’s already built a following – and won praise from the likes of Marina O’Loughlin – after stints at Soho’s Louie Louie, and regular food business-incubating pub The Sun & 13 Cantons, and now he’s taken his appealing menu to the appealingly industrial setting of Bermondsey Bar and Kitchen. It’s clearly going well too: as I write this, I learn that the moveable restaurant is staying where it is until at least the end of 2019.
The cuisine on offer is billed as “European small plates” and that’s about as good description as I can think of. There’s classic French technique, a distinct bias to seasonal British ingredients, a decent chunk of Scandinavia – a dill-heavy salmon and scallop tartare is one of several delightful dishes we try – and that aforementioned love of the pickle. When they work, they’re a very welcome addition, a fine burst that gives bite – both acidic and texturally – and contrast to a menu that’s big on things soft and unctuous. When it doesn’t…Actually, that makes it sound more serious than it is. In this instance, “when it doesn’t…” refers to a single dish, a pre-starter snack of slow cooked ox cheek on rye toast with pickled cucumber. That’s a dish that reads like a dream and looks like one, the ox-cheek falling apart seductively at the merest pressure from the fork. Sadly, there was little more to it than that. This was the sort of slow-cooking I used to expect in my kitchen not a professional one, where the texture seems to have been achieved at the cost of flavour. Based on my experiences though, I suspect this means that, somewhere in the kitchen, there was a pan full of glossy, intensely beefy cooking juices, just waiting to be drizzled over or stirred back through. As a result, the pickled cucumber was there to cut through qualities the dish simply didn’t possess. In the great scheme of things, it’s a very tiny, two-bite misfire, and the only misfire in an otherwise excellent meal. But when it’s the first thing you try, it’s a little unsettling…
Also from the snack menu, Cobble Lane cured meat croquettes were gamey, light and just holding their shape in a delicate crumb. Given the napalm-like qualities of the innards, this was doubly impressive but, when they’d dropped to a reasonable temperature – a good few minutes, seriously you could use them as hand-warmers on frosty mornings – they prove to be delightful. Even better though was wild mushrooms on toast, with garlic and Graceburn cheese, which turns out to be one of the main reasons I’ll be back.Also falling into that category is James’ calling card of slow cooked pork belly, sour cabbage, apple. It’s a description that completely undersells a superb plate of food (and one of several dishes on the menu available as both a small or large plate). While the slow cooking had worked its magic on the meat’s fatty, melting nature, a burst of heat had added texture and crispness, and an almost bacon like quality. Elsewhere, the sweet softness of the apple was brought under control by the sharpness and bite of the cabbage, or possibly vice versa. Whichever way round, it’s a gorgeous dish that also comes swimming in a pool of gravy so brilliantly piggy and meaty it made the oxcheek even more baffling.
It’s an indication of how good these two are that the remainder of our meal – perfectly cooked, creative and delicious – feels, initially, something of a disappointment. It’s only a day or two later, when I find myself fancying a little more tartare, craving more of the cod, with its bed of green lentils and burst of lemon sharpness, or the al dente acidity of the grilled broccoli (with hazelnuts and cider vinaigrette), that it sinks in just how thoroughly decent Donnelly’s is. Saying that, I’m instantly in awe of the perfectly cooked spiced pear with (incredible) walnut ice cream and winter granola, and the light, crisp, subtly citrussy lemon meringue pie of dreams. All told, Donnelly’s is something of an understated delight.