A southeast London restaurant worth getting excited about
The idea that southeast London is a gastronomic desert bereft of anywhere good to eat out is a long-held canard. Although somewhat overstated, especially in boroughs with relative wealth and proximity to Zone 1, there is an element of truth to it. With the locals spending the majority of their working days in the centre of town and then either too gastronomically timid or too cash-strapped to eat out regularly, operating a noteworthy restaurant becomes a very hard business indeed unless you have the benefit of mitigating factors. If you’ve ever wondered why some suburbs seem to full of nothing but curry houses, chain restaurants and takeaways, then that’s why.
If there’s anything good to be gained from London’s insane property market and creakily unreliable transport system, then it’s the spread of talented restauranteurs out into the suburbs to serve people willing to give them a chance if it means skipping a journey into the West End and then back home again.
That’s a lot to throw on Sparrow’s shoulders, but it’s unavoidable context when an experienced kitchen team open up in Lewisham, almost literally within the shadow of the local shopping centre. Although located in zone 2 mere minutes down the mainline from London Bridge, this formerly drab and depressing part of town might as well not exist for most other Londoners.
The eccentric, eclectic and ever-changing menu defies easy categorisation, but a few clear patterns emerged across my various meals at Sparrow.
First things first
Sparrow’s bruschettas were crisp and light, unlike the crunchy and stodgy topped mini-breads often served at Rick Stein Barnes. On this occasion, one was topped with a lightly sweet and creamy squash-like puree while the other was graced with a gently umami, tapenade-like topping of minced mushrooms.
The fennel and blood orange salad was surprisingly muted. The gently musky blood orange wasn’t as remarkably sweet as I would’ve expected, while the fennel wasn’t as distinctively bitter as I’d like. Although not bad, this salad leaned a bit too heavily on the halved olives and a zatar-like space for warm, nutty overtones to tide my tongue along.
The pork belly was technically excellent. The expertly rendered layer of fat made the white meat succulent and tender, while the crackling had a well-judged balance of crunch and unctuous chew. The only downside, and a very modest one at that, was the harissa. Tasting mostly of sharp and sweet bell peppers, it lacked the warmth and punch of the harissas I tried and loved in Tunisia. It was still a pleasing sauce for the pork belly though.
The cheesecake had a similar level of technical excellence, but also needed a touch more finesse in some of the details. The wispy, milky and tart cream cheese layer went beautifully with the light yet malty and gently crunchy biscuit base. The tang of the cream cheese tended to overwhelm the gentle sharpness and yielding texture of the rhuarb served on the side though.
A special mention has to go to Sparrow’s rotating selection of iced teas. The camomile was highly reminiscent of the chrysanthemum iced teas of my childhood in its herby sweetness – unsurprising as both plants are members of the same floral family.
Going back for seconds
Although I’d rather have rich and runny soft/semi-soft boiled eggs instead of the hard-boiled variety used in this dish, I couldn’t argue with the superlative relish that you spoon on top of them. A chunky spread of cubed duck and anchovy provided a strident meaty-salty-umami combo. The fish sauce-like taste of the relish was amplified even further by the sweet caramelised chewiness of the crispy shallots. Ace.
A summery salad had an occasional hint of earthy chewiness courtesy of the dried shrimp, but this dish was all about the sharp citric sweetness of the gently softened yet still firm slices of kohlrabi.
I wasn’t expecting much from the cured salmon, so what appeared on the plate knocked me off my feet. The smooth and fleshy strips of fish were the conveyor for an apparently crushed mixture of lemon and fennel seeds. The combined effect was nothing so prosaic – mustardy and cumin-like, its deep curry-like flavour was astonishingly bold and evocative. Refreshing yet spiced. Unassuming yet astonishing.
Moist slices of duck breast were cooked just-so, although I did wish for a little more extant fattiness as well as skin that was thin and supple rather than thick and crispy. The duck leg was pleasingly earthy, though. Both cuts were complimented exceptionally well by the lightly spiced umami of the ‘chilli jam’ which was really just Hong Kong-style XO sauce as far as I could tell. Supple, subtly fruity sweet endive leaves helped cut through the relative richness of the sauce and duck.
It’s not just a superb pairing of poultry and sauce, but provides a brilliant example of how to evoke the famed duck dishes of China without resorting to a half-baked copy.
The espresso used in the affogato was a little too bitter for my liking, but it nonetheless meshed well with the thick and creamy yet smooth nature of the ice cream to produce a soothing effect. It’s just a shame that the coconut flavour of said ice cream was so unremarkable.
Although the portion size of the camomile iced tea was noticeably smaller this time around, it was still a refreshing glug.
The fried rabbit wasn’t the croquettes I was expecting, but was instead Sparrow’s take on fried chicken. Although reasonably firm and springy, the rabbit meat could almost have been substituted with chicken without anyone noticing. The thin yet crunchy batter, textured with air bubbles, was pleasingly grease-free (unlike the dross offered by Lewisham’s many independent fried chicken takeaways), but the sauce on the side ending up stealing the show.
Warm with what tasted like mustard seed and fenugreek, it somewhat resembled a South Indian curry while also taking its own path with a cheeky dollop of anchovies for a fish sauce-like umami kick.
The shrimp and kohlrabi salad was much the same as it was before.
While tender, the lamb leg had a little more resistance to the knife than I expected. This wasn’t a bad thing though, as it ended up providing a pleasing chew in the mouth. Another unexpected plus was the lamb’s earthiness which was almost liver-like in its funkiness. Parsley, olives and lightly creamy borlotti beans came together nicely, bound together by a thin yet lip smackingly moreish broth. If you want a dish that speaks softly yet elegantly and memorably of the seemingly effortless yet tireless work that has gone into making it taste so damn fine, then this is it. This is it.
The dark chocolate and caramel tart was essentially a cross between a Twix and a Crunchie bar, but much better than either of those corner shop staples. Lightly bitter dark chocolate, a trembling tang of caramel and a hint of honeycomb came together nicely in a whippy mousse-style confection sitting atop a moderately crunchy biscuit base. Refreshingly tart crème fraiche cut through the relative richness of the chocolate-caramel mixture.
An iced tea of the day mixing peppermint and lemon tasted mostly of lemon, but it was still refreshing enough.
Go fourth and multiply
An iced tea substituting matcha for the peppermint was a more successfully balanced affair, even if it the lemon was still the dominant element.
Sparrow’s risotto was noticeably lighter than more traditional versions of the dish, which tend to be creamier and heavier. A herby sweetness in the sauce contrasted neatly with the earthiness in the morsels of goat’s cheese. The muted crunch and taste of the hazelnut dusting left me unmoved though and I remain uncertain what to make of the rice. It was modestly chewy which provided some texture to get my teeth into, but the al dente medium-sized grains clashed with my usual preference for far softer and fluffier rice.
While far from inedibly hard, almost everything about the Amazon’s sprouting broccoli and coconut salad was an exercise in firmness. From the crisp and nutty slices of coconut to the springy green florets of lightly bitter broccoli, this dish was all about hardness. Despite all that and a creeping sense of cleanly worthiness, this light dish would certainly be a good pick if you’re still recovering from a heavy lunch.
The meaty sinews of the pork rillettes were creamy with a herby sweetness. Although it wasn’t quite as fatty and intermittently edged with gelatine like the best Gorronais rilettes from the Loire-Brittany borderlands, it was still a pleasing dollop of pig. It was best taken without the accompanying prune jam though – slightly sour and almost treacly, it tended to overwhelm and obscure the rilettes’ charms.
The Amazon’s fried chicken was much like the fried rabbit from before, albeit with white meat that was noticeably less remarkable. The sauce had less umami compared to the sauce that accompanied the rabbit, with more nuttiness in a satay-ish sort of way. While good enough, I ended up longing for the rabbit to hop back into Sparrow’s kitchen.
After putting up with my constant ravings about the cured salmon, the Amazon was puzzled by the very different version that showed up on her plate. While the refreshing citrusy dressing of the fleshy salmon strips was pleasing enough in its own right, it wasn’t as lip-tremblingly vibrant and uncompromisingly different as the original version.
Despite its name and on-the-bone presentation, Sparrow’s ‘bang bang’ beef short rib shouldn’t be conflated with American-style barbecue ribs. The slab of sinewy beef was indeed layered with squidgy fat and quivering connective tissue, but it had more in common with Chinese-style red braised pork and the Okinawan analogue of that famed Chinese dish. All three layers were blessed with a deeply satisfying umami, possibly due to a combination of soy sauce, star anise and other elements that I’ve probably misidentified. The rich unctuousness of the beef rib made the muted nature of the fleshy aubergine all the more puzzling. Even so, this was a lip-smackingly good hunk of cow.
Although the buttermilk panna cotta slowly lost its shape, eventually oozing into something resembling a thickened yoghurt, it was still an exceptional dessert. Profoundly creamy and smooth, yet with a subtle herby sweetness that neatly complimented the tartness and sweetness of the gently softened and yielding rhubarb served on the side. When compared with the relative clumsiness of the rhubarb cheesecake from my first meal, it’s not only a superb example of a rhubarb-based dessert but also an example of the kitchen’s ability to iterate and improve.
Although oddly denominated as a ‘pressed’ chocolate cake, the Amazon’s dessert was really just a flourless cake. It wasn’t as sweet, moist and characterful as the best flourless chocolate cakes though – heftier amounts of sugar, a choicer base chocolate and more weaponised butter would’ve helped there. Still, it’s better than most and the sharp creme fraiche provided a neat note of refreshment at the end.
If I had wrapped up this review after my first meal at Sparrow, then I would have concluded that the food was good but little more than that of a very respectable but ultimately unremarkable gastropub. Subsequent visits revealed, as they so often do, the fuller picture – an eclectic menu full of elegant, deceptively simple delights. It’s still clearly a work in progress – the dessert selection is nascent despite some startling highlights, while seafood is largely absent with the majority of the main courses consisting of meat with sauces. But when it’s meat this well-chosen, cooked to a high standard and paired with top-notch sauces, then there is little reason to complain.
If Sparrow can iron out its inconsistencies, then it’d a restaurant worth travelling across town for. In a way though, I hope it doesn’t evolve towards that goal. Sparrow is already a sparkling delight for Lewisham locals – if they have any taste at all, they will fill every single last table for countless nights to come.
Address: 2 Rennell Street, Lewisham, London SE13 7HD
Phone: 020 8318 6941
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday 18.00-22.00, Saturday 10.00-17.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday 10.00-17.00.
Reservations: highly recommended. Essential on and around the weekend.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £40 approx.