Down here in Streatham, we’re very proud of our gastronomic heritage. Come pay homage to our kebab shops, capable of keeping bits of dead animal warm for as long as anywhere in the country (or your money back). Marvel at the handful of high street Italians, quite dazzling in their bog-standardness. And where else in London would you find such a diverse range of fried chicken franchises?
I think you get the point. Streathamites with appetites cast jealous glances towards our trendier neighbours in Brixton, spoilt for choice as they are, with the thriving Atlantic road area getting a lot of positive press in the past year or so. Franco Manca is frequently described as the best pizza place in London. Kaosan is ‘startlingly good’ according to Jay Rayner. And they’ve got a tube station. The smug bastards.
However, the buffalo mozzarella may shortly be wiped from their faces, as The Manor Arms is the best thing to happen to the restaurant scene in SW16 in my lifetime. I realise that this is hardly high praise, given the introduction, but it is an establishment that would grace an area far less scruffy than Streatham. Refurbished and re-opened last year, it is every inch the modern gastropub – seasonal and unpretentious British cooking, informal service, local ales, a good wine list.
Entering is a soothing experience. It’s all varnished wood and dim lighting, with a shiny open kitchen as a centrepiece where chefs in pinstripe aprons buzz around purposefully. It feels like somewhere that will feed you well. They have a set menu at £12 for two courses or £15.50 for three. My parents, paying, both go for this, and so in the interests of fairness I go a la carte. If I say that it proved a wise move then it’s not because their grub isn’t good, it’s because mine is three courses of pure, unblemished joy.
The first thing to say about the food is that it is all served on plates that are round and white. Anyone who has ever chased a dribble of coulis round a slate with a tiny fork will know why this is such a relief. The one exception to this is the bread - served (funnily enough) on a bread board - which is homemade and comes in three varieties. All of them are lovely. And so onto the starters: shards of brown duck confit, glisteningly moist, are matched with sharp blood orange and rocket. Cauliflower soup is rich and velvety, with crisp croutons so abundant with olive oil that it fills your cheeks. Let there be no doubt that this is a good thing. A little ice-cream scoop of goat’s curd is mild and unassuming, but it comes with absolutely sublime toast. Seriously, that’s what my dad said: “this toast is absolutely sublime”.
Such praise can rarely have been afforded grilled bread. Neither can too many people have said that the best scallops they have ever eaten were in Streatham, but if indeed any actually exist then I can now join their club. The melting softness of the little pearls makes my fork feel like a samurai sword, and they are perfectly partnered by chorizo and butter-heavy mash (see above). Elsewhere, vegetable curry hums with cumin and punches with chili, although it might have been nice to have been told that it contains yet more cauliflower, whilst an open burger is appropriately juicy. Frankly I’m more interested in the skinny chips it comes with, which I pinch to mop up the chorizo oil from the bottom of my plate. Real men mop up their chorizo oil with chips. This is the best thing about The Manor Arms – you can have a burger or you can have scallops and you can be pretty sure they’ll do either of them well. You can have a glass of Chablis or sit there with a pint and you won’t feel a fool. The importance of making people feel at ease is something many restaurants don’t understand.
The grown-up in me wants the mixed nut financier, which my dad goes for, but my inner child throws a tantrum and chooses the brownie with butterscotch sauce. It is an ode to gooeyness. As it turns out, the little nut cake is a bit boring, even if the ginger ice cream it comes with does its’ best to liven it up. This is the worst thing that I can find to say about the entire meal.
There are those who will say that one restaurant does not a foodie haven make, and they are right. It is always amusing to read press coverage of somewhere in Britain being awarded a Michelin star, as if this represents some kind of food revolution. Of course it doesn’t – what we need is not an above average quota of fabulous restaurants, accessible only to the rich and foolish, but a fleet of affordable places making the most of their ingredients. Streatham now has one. Perhaps this is the birth of a new food culture here. I doubt it, but I’ve got all my fingers crossed.