I need no convincing to make the journey across the river to Bermondsey for dinner. The atmosphere, the reputation, the excellent calibre and selection of casual, cool, independent restaurants – new and old – keep me coming back time and again. And Bermondsey Street, the namesake centre of this south-east district, has been a hub of activity in art, design and, of course, food for longer than my own 10-or-so years in London. Walking down Bermondsey Street in summer towards brand new SE1 resident The Last Talisman (taking the spot of Loyal Tavern at 171-173 Bermondsey St.) felt good – an experience out of reach and craved for so long. The road was lively. Noise was pouring out of pubs and extra two-top tables were being set up outside overflowing restaurants to accommodate more diners (long may the pavement takeover continue!).
The Last Talisman was no less alive. First thing that hits you, after you’ve passed through the bouncer on the door (this isn’t your usual quiet, intimate dinner-for-two type place), is an energetic atmosphere and cool, blingy interior. Picture exposed brick walls, a low industrial ceiling with pipes bared, naked bulbs casting a low light and an opulent bar with its dark wooden top stretching a good length of the base-level restaurant. The bar is backed by mirrors and shelves stacked with every spirit bottle you’d want to see. Noise levels are high, to do with both the Thursday evening special entertainment – a singer covering songs by Amy Winehouse and Maroon Five – and of the young crowd filling out the venue. There’s a lively mood as we make our way to our table at the back of the restaurant. In fact, The Last Talisman is a ‘drinking house’ and Asian grill, which, having now experienced the fare, much better represents the place. Small plates and skewers make up the food menu, while two bars pump out cocktails. It’s a different kind of scene to the usual, low-key Bermondsey Street fare and more an evening drinking venue with light bites to accompany. When we walked in at 8.30pm it was packed with small groups celebrating birthdays, after-work drinks and couples on dates.
What was good:
An adventurous, modern wine list featuring Gruner Veltliner, several ‘natty’ unfiltered whites and red, and a California Cabernet Sauvignon that originated in a garage with owner Tony Cartlidge mixing grapes (now the renowned Cartlidge & Browne). All wines are costed very decently between £20 – £45. We enjoyed a bottle of very quaffable Vinho Verde for £25, following two cocktails that really kicked off our experience. On asking, I was surprised that we couldn’t order any classic cocktails (perhaps this would have been different sitting at one of the bars). It was a choice between half a dozen or so from the menu designed by mixologist Dre Masso, some twists on classics and some novel concoctions. The waiter, however, was committed to finding us something to sate. We advised bitter, dry, spicy, short. He came back with two Nemesis Margaritas. Whether it was the worm salt or the habanero, I’m not sure, but it blew the cobwebs out and almost any taste of what else was involved (mezcal, pineapple, ginger). Exactly what we’d inadvertently ordered and, after a couple of blinding sips, had us very much awake and craving more.
A taste of other cocktails:
- Saint’s Sazerac – cognac, whiskey, absinthe, sugar, Peychaud’s bitters
- Banoffee Old Fashioned – caramelized banana bourbon and rye whiskey, chocolate bitters
- Cardinal Sin – pink gin, rosé, Prosecco, strawberry vermouth
The British-Asian dishes on the menu are the concept of Chef Tim Ross-Watson, who brings a decade of experience working in various kitchens in Singapore. The plates brought flavours from Korea, Japan, China and Thailand, making up a compact menu. Plates are very moderately priced (£3.70 chicken skewer, £4 scallop fish cake) but they are also very modestly sized; think more the style of pinchos, with a loose pan-Asian theme. They were ideal as tasty accompaniments to big-hitting cocktails but not enough for a big-eating couple wanting dinner.
Korean chicken cooked in ginger and soy marinade, crispy batter with gochujang ketchup was predictably delicious, alongside which we had house pickles, tempura veg and broccoli with sambal – so good and spicy, we ordered more to have with the skewered meat. Four skewers came: scallop fish cake, pork, chicken and lamb. The chicken and lamb were flavoured with peanut sauce, the pork with a sweet miso mustard – tasty but too small to share. The best looking and tasting order was the ‘Dirty Rice’. White rice, burnt butter, special sauce, mixed onions, slow-cooked egg, crispy chicken skin. A small portion but loaded with fresh toppings to stir in and seriously good. (But should we really still be calling this dish ‘dirty rice’?)
The Last Talisman has recently also teamed with Wild Beasts Art Agency to showcase UK and international talent. Fine art, photography, sculpture, graphics, street art and illustration will feature throughout the year. Right now exhibited are the works of Maxim – a member of The Prodigy turned painter, sculpture, ceramicist – Vancouver artist and designer Saint Saturday and Gustavo Amaral, a brazilian artist capturing the human form in photographic collages.
The Last Talisman
171-173 Bermondsey Street