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Words: Chris Zacharia
Comfort is in short supply. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was more of it? More cuddles, more kind words, more reassurance?
Life is hard, like stale bread. Comfort is consoling, like butter. And good butter can transform even the crustiest bread into a soothing treat.
At their best, restaurants can console you like a good friend. They give you what you need, in an atmosphere alive and bubbling with the best things in life: friendship, laughter, conversation.
Aside is a new restaurant in Peckham. You couldn’t describe what they serve as ‘comfort food’, but an evening at Aside is one of the most reassuringly brilliant dining experiences around. The simplest ingredients are handled with such love and care, that you too end up feeling loved and cared for.
Take the homemade butter. ‘It’s made with coffee chaff’ explains Ollie, formidably young, formidably cool waiter, placing a saucer of golden yellow before us. ‘It’s a by-product of the coffee making process, but it really adds a maltiness to the butter’.
Not for the last time this evening, Ollie is right. Applying the resinous, glossy spread to the bread’s yawning craters, the quality is obvious. One bite, two, and everything makes sense. Coffee in butter. Of course.
Aside isn’t much to look at. Approaching the restaurant in the darkness of the residential road, we’re convinced that we’ve made a mistake, gotten the letters jumbled on the postcode. But no, Aside is here, shoulder to shoulder with the terraced houses, as though deliberately hiding from the crowds.
The understatedness continues within. The furnishings, from the toilet’s hand-towel cabinet to the desk-esque square tables with their open-fronted trays of cutlery beneath, look like they’ve been reclaimed from a primary school. Look at the floor: it’s the parquet lattice we sat on during assembly.
Taking a seat, I’m struck not by Aside’s plainness but by the formidable confidence in the cooking that such sparseness implies. After all, if the cooking’s no good, what else are you going to come here for?
The cocktails, for one. Housed opposite the narrow row of dining tables, it’s manned by Rob, another met-him-in-the-smoking-area-in-Hoxton bloke called Rob. He mixes us a Pink Martini, enlivened by a smoky shake of mezcal and your choice of sweet or dry vermouth. Served in a short flute, a translucent petal pink, it’s an excellent aperitif, its subtle sweetness radiating on the tongue.
It shares space on our tabletop with a flagon of tapwater. But what’s that black rod inside of it? Vanilla? Cinnamon?
‘It’s activated charcoal’ Rob reveals. ‘It filters the water. Our water is already filtered, but this refines it even more’
Aside use simplicity like a good seasoning. Beyond the plain, living-room-to-let decor, the menu is composed of three sheets of A5, held together by a gold triangle clip. It’s a list of sharing plates, denoted on the menu only as strings of ingredients – no adjectives, no waffle. We pick one or two and ask Ollie to bring us whatever he deems best among the menu’s dozen or so dishes.
They swoop down on us like flying saucers, bearing otherworldly gifts. Radish and chicken butter brings crimson carvings of watermelon radish, crunchy and peppery, and a blob of caramel-coloured butter which tastes like poultry. It’s so good, it has us fencing with our knives.
‘Chopped belted Galloway with charcoal oil’ sounds like satire, but it’s beef tartare. It arrives as an island of raw beef, flecked with onions and parsley and accompanied by a grilled boomerang of flatbread. It’s delicious. But I miss the richness of the yolk usually found in beef tartare.
They say that if you don’t like an ingredient, you just haven’t had it in the right dish yet. I’m not fond of beetroot, so when a dish described only as ‘Beetroot, Pear and Walnut’ arrives I’m hardly scrambling for my cutlery. But after a few bites – cautiously, then with growing appetite – I’m a beetroot believer.
Chunky canoes of mango-yellow fringed with pink, lying in a tangy pool of pear purée, alive with vinegar: the beetroot is unpickled, crunchy and delicious. The creamiest walnuts you or I have ever tasted lie scattered like edible rocks. Little beetroot hearts leave slipstreams of raspberry amid the lime-green coulis. Rich, zingy and autumnal, it’s the best dish of a very good bunch.
It’s got competition. Strips of venison expose their pink midriffs, amidst a pattern of plum crescents and purée of Jerusalem artichoke, crowned with basil. The venison has that steely meatiness and a soft, yielding texture. The artichoke purée brings a creaminess to the flesh, and the pear coaxes the meat’s sweetness.
‘I love it’ my partner declares simply, her resolve untouchable a mere two bites in.
Our final two dishes round off the meal nicely, without some of the eye-catching creativity of the first few. Hake, ratte’ potato and leek is a straightforward fish dish, albeit with the freshest, flakiest catch around: the hake is seriously good, aromatic and pungent, its crispy golden skin a magic carpet of umami flavours.
Enormous shards of pumpkin, cooked but still fibrous and robust, appear in a minestra nera, a savoury broth with black broccoli, and a handful of hazelnuts. It’s another autumnal uncle of a dish, backslapping big flavours, but that pumpkin is hard work and it almost leaves the table unfinished. Almost.
Dessert rejuvenates us with one final firework: a slice of chocolate torte. Thick, wet and moist, it’s impossibly dense, like clay. If chocolate were illegal, this would be the most prized and coveted slab, rich enough to satisfy anyone’s craving. How did they get it so thick?
‘We make it with 100% Jersey milk’ Rob explains. ‘We’re hoping to start a chocolate library, so that people in the daytime can order some with their coffee’
A chocolate library. What could be more reassuring than that?
As we step outside, the anonymous residential street doesn’t look so anonymous anymore. It looks lucky, fortunate to have such a damn good neighbourhood restaurant on their street. For those far-flung from Aside, however, it’s cold comfort.
56 Goldsmith Rd
Tel: 020 7358 1760