Coal Rooms, 11a Station Way, Peckham, London, Rye Station SE15 4RX
Coal Rooms: You'll want this smoke
“When it’s brown it’s cooked, when it’s black, it’s fucked” is the silly mantra of an even sillier man, Gordon Ramsay. An increasingly out-of-touch bollock-merchant who can’t handle the fact he’s getting older which, for a man who claims to deal so plainly in bare-faced truths, can’t seem to help but get his filled with Botox. Blackening with fire can bring arguably more benefits than losses and, if we abided by Gordipops in this way, we’d never know the glory of baba ganoush, harissa or burnt ends. Ramsay, like his face, is full of toxic shit.
Showing me everywhere the Taste Cadets haven’t seemingly yet ventured, My Editor snagged us a table at Coal Rooms- a place she's been eyeing-up for some time. Located right at the bottom of the stairs leading out from Peckham Rye station, it’s now fully open and has converted to a tasting menu with wine flight and a new head chef. Conditions are perfect. A couple in the corner appears even happier to be here because the necking has started almost immediately like it's Fabric and not just gone 6pm.
Equally keen to show off our necking abilities in riposte, we leap straight for the lemon meringue pisco sours. Juicy, bright with a definite lemon curd quality but without cloy, the top comes lightly torched and mimics that tacky-to-the-touch chewy quality in a way that still allows the drink to flow, unhindered. A thigh-slapping touch to a restaurant that is trying to put fire into everything, be it with flame or jalapeño- found even in the Margheritas.
A course devoted to bread and butter will always be a world I’ll want to live in, but a jalapeño and thyme ‘country loaf’, still lightly panting from the oven, is a world in which I’ll happily set down my bindle. Rather than a creeping heat, the object is to use the pepper for its flavour- a sweetness just ahead of a sour bitterness and thickly troweled with that deeply golden salted butter.
But then comes one of the most memorable dishes of the evening ‘trio of seasonal tomatoes’- a seductively terse description that cocks an eyebrow.
Plum tomato that’s branded with a hard sear and a black heritage tomato, simply sliced and slid into place on a tomato aioli. Dots of tomato gel, toasted black and white sesame and poppy seeds, give welcomed texture and chippings of nuttiness. But it’s the jalapeño powder that takes this, deservedly common concept of a dish, somewhere else entirely; sucking in any droplet it comes into contact with and suddenly melts down into a sticky purée, like when you miss the slot for the washing powder. In combination, the dish takes on a fresh salsa-like quality in the after-taste.
Aged-beef fat asparagus, wild garlic oil, jalapeño powder, dashi vinegar. ‘It’s all the flavour of a beautiful piece of beef, with none of the heft’ opines My Editor, going on to assert that this is how she’d consume beef permanently if it wasn’t for all the other qualities inherent to a piece of beef itself. Such a robust fat allows the spears to be scorched and simultaneously lightly fried, maintaining the tenderness within. Beneath is perhaps a thin hollandaise but I can't be sure and I've already asked loads of questions that the staff probably could've done without. Jalapeño gets another mention; dehydrated and coarsely blitzed it offers a steadying contrast to a reasonably puckering dashi vinegar gel.
Coffee kombucha duck, oyster mushrooms, charred sea kale, grits. Grits! Of all things. I erupt in my seat, falling to the shoulder of My Editor like a rocket that’s failed to launch. I cannot get enough of when the refined tries to lasso a basic staple into its fold and, when coupled with -and haters will say it’s predictable- an Asian twist on duck by way of kombucha and oyster mushroom. I have no choice but to find out. The purpose of the grits here seems to try to texturally substitute what would usually be a puréed vegetable- beetroot, carrot, potato. On this, it takes a knock, as the only thing slicker here is the coffee kombucha sauce which could do with a small blast of further reduction. The sea kale is charred as promised and is a happy diversion from the radicchio that might usually take that role. Slicked in a lip-bitingly barbed habanero dressing, it’s piled atop the piece of duck which is a reassuring New York pink. Thinking the mushroom might be cleverly hiding in plain view, it turns out it was forgotten altogether, but brought to the table in quick succession.
T-bone of Brill, loveage chimichurri, monk's beard. Brawny and firm-flaking, the brill is adorned with monk's beard in a way that screams ‘I’m Rick James’. The chimichurri is explosively citrus, the chili kicking with stirrups, and you’re glad of it. Resembling mulched grass, it’s not the way I’m used to it- looser and slowly bobbing in glugs of oil- but the sheer fresh intensity of it gets you past the looks, and looking for commitment. Fresh pieces of blood orange hang about the plate and, whilst offering a quenching punch of juice, don't feel all that necessary.
Gnocchi, pepper reduction and Grelot onions. This is where I think of old Gordon ‘IT'S RAW!?’ Ramsay. It’s a bit of a blindside to have this before dessert, traditionally speaking- clustered with roasted hazelnuts, a slice of long sweet pepper that’s ‘fucked’ on the outside, is supple and fleshy. Essentially being a steam chamber when cooking as a whole, the residual heat and rest has made this plump, fruity and adds moisture to the toothsome gnocchi that’s coated in something like Old Bay. Although it’s yelping for more of a sauce, the hazelnuts give resounding syrupy notes that become the catalyst for every subsequent mouthful. The Grelot onions are as blackened as the peppers but haven’t had the tenderising benefit of steam which gives a raw crunch that doesn’t wholly feel in keeping with the dish. This doesn’t stop us from cleaning the plate with a collective sigh, however.
A surreptitious Google has me hanging my head in shame yet again as I groak for the final dish. ‘Kladdkaka is a popular Swedish chocolate cake. It is a rich chocolate dessert cake with a crisp exterior and a soft and gooey interior. This dense, compact chocolate cake is similar to a chocolate brownie and a molten chocolate cake’.
What’s there to elaborate on? It is exactly this and oozing into ever-absorbed clumps of icing sugar. It’s again no looker, but assimilates into the very core of your being, the way only something like a brownie can. Bitter with cocoa, lifted with dulce de leche and further indulged with the dense cream, it concludes a ride in which all my limbs remain- and I’m ready to go again.
Coal Rooms reminds me of when Otira opened in Bristol- invigorating ideas that merely suffer from plating and minor issues of execution. But to hesitate on these points, would be to miss the point entirely. Whilst the likes of Brat and Ynishir are famous for their taming of joules, I don’t think this place is necessarily trying to compete with that sort of thing. It's doing something all its own and there's something so viscerally rewarding about being amongst it all in real-time, as concepts pupate.
We just need to be patient.