Peckham Cellars, 125 Queen's Rd, London SE15 2ND
Peckham Cellars: A neighbourhood blessing
Sentient tumour Giles Coren is terrified of Peckham, which allows the rest of us to enjoy it in peace. Of course, the idea of a ‘wine bar ft. small plates’ is nothing new, but to execute it in a way that radiates personality, is. Some money-spinning establishments seem to think they hide the machinations of the scheme well, where the food appears to be an afterthought with the wine barely being one that preceded it. “Are you not entertained?!” smirk the walls and menus. But Peckham Cellars couldn’t be more welcoming nor enticing.
Bread and butter is my Death Row meal. It’s the bare essentials of satisfaction that no doubt gave rise to the associated phrase. To me, it’s a subtle lens through which a restaurant takes its view, as well as the handling of the basics. It’s sourdough, yes, but with a whipped thyme and garlic butter that, with the kevlar-like crust of the loaf, fits the flavour and texture profile of a roast potato with a reduction in stodge-factor. Barely out of the gate, and I’m revelling in carbs, fats and hope.
A patchwork of ‘English coppa’ comes to us rippled with fat, resembling the refracted sunlight on a seafloor, in the aftermath of a recent shark attack. Subtly spiced and melting to the touch, you give serious thought to ordering more- the downside to the small plates game which lends itself to exploring a large part, if not all of the menu.
Croquetas are everywhere, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re all good. But this is not one of those times, friends. Bechamel stained with chorizo, complete with a few chunklets throughout, the panko crust barely holding the line between order and delicious chaos. As if this wasn’t already an unstoppable nod to the God of calories, there’s a sizeable squeeze of nicely smoked aioli that is coursing with garlic and clawing at your nose to have one of these barely-stable behemoths dragged through it. I daydream of upscaling these to a sleeping bag in which I’d snooze forever and be happily committed to the earth for the Final Nap itself.
Any perceived drop in temperature and my mind often wanders to the plump, creamy comfort of Cannellini beans, simmered in stock and glossed with butter. Trite as it may seem, the phrase “it’s food you just want to eat” applies here without pretence- Peckham Cellars just want to feed you, sans fuss. Deepend with porcini and all huddled under thick drifts of parmesan, it’s an up-market embrace that’s only found in the union of cheese and bean (toast not required).
The tiger prawns compare more to the articulated thumb of a knight's gauntlet, gradually sinking into a black olive polenta that must be at least half parmesan. Rib-sticking, robust and with a fine “use-your-hands” to cutlery ratio, it’s got an essence of soul-food about it which you’d have to be a proper Giles not to love.
At the risk of sounding contrarian, feta as it is, isn’t all that. To me, it’s not unlike chalk that’s been marinating in bile. But when whipped, it transforms to something not only more pleasing in texture, but pliable enough to dip. Enter: deep-fried Jerusalem artichokes. The antithesis of the Diam concept, the crisp shell containing sweet, fudgy innards that gives fried punched potatoes a run for their comparatively rubbish money. Slices of pickled squash so thin, they’re as delicate as Giles walking alone through a Lidl car park. They lay about the plate in good proportion with a hefty sprig of coriander that allows you to add that burst of freshness. Apologies if you think it tastes like soap, however.
Finally, the chocolate tart with chantilly cream. What is there to expand upon? Well, quite a bit, fortunately. Firstly, the pastry- thin enough to indicate great skill, but thick enough to contribute a lasting buttery crunch throughout each bite. Despite appearing humble, the chocolate undresses on the tongue without hesitation in its sweeter notes, before seeping into a trajectory of bitterness with the cream gently easing the dish back into balance. It's essentially a summary of all we've experienced so far- undeniable skill shrouded in modesty.
Hopefully, when society totally dissolves into a Mad Max hellscape, we can all chip in our bottle caps and place bets on Giles and William Sitwell in a syringe fight to the death. We will feed the corpse to our mutant cattle that we now ride and sacrifice the winner to our new God. But until then, as Giles punctuates his skirting of every area of London that hosts a Morley's with patches of his own effluence, let us delve into the fruits of Peckham rather than the low-hanging ones I’ve used to put an edge on this review.