I eat out quite a lot. Not as much as I used to, but still at least two or three times a week. Which is technically two or three times too many for someone with no income and, to date, no seven or eight figure Euromillions win (or a three, four or five figure, for that matter).
Obviously this is something I enjoy doing. But even ignoring the fiscal issues there is a downside – which is that, quite often, I’m somewhere between apathetic and disappointed by places that serve perfectly decent food in perfectly a pleasant atmosphere. It seems a shame not to enjoy food that there’s nothing wrong with, or to be totally non-plussed by a nice room with no buzz. But that’s how it is. I know I’m not alone.
The first issue (the food) is relatively easy to get round – I just try to avoid spending my money in places that are obviously going to serve food that’s just a bit standard. Look at the menu. Read a few trusted reviews. It’s not too difficult.
The second (vibes) is harder. Service and atmosphere are important to me – if I want decent food, middle of the road music, no real buzz and a waiter with no personality, I can eat at home. Eating out encompasses more than just the food. You pay for the whole package. But the problem is there really aren’t that many places that combine good food, with an enjoyable atmosphere and relaxed but proficient service. It can be a bit hit and hope to find them too.
Last week I ate at Magdalan on Tooley Street, just behind BoJo’s office. The food was pretty good. In fact it was a lot better than ‘perfectly decent’. But the room and the atmosphere just felt far too 2002. White linen tablecloths; slightly stiff architecture; and artwork that was either a bit naff or overly formal. The waiters were pleasant enough, but lacked the kind of charisma and enthusiasm that can transform an experience. I’m being quite critical of an adequate space and this illustrates the complacency that has encroached my eating out. However, I have a feeling I would feel the same if this was my once a month treat.
I’ll come back to this, because the food deserves to be talked about.
The menu reads well. Maybe one or two too many choices per course, but some interesting, non-standard stuff, in a cross between classic French bistro and modern British.
Amongst the starters that we didn’t have were chicken liver toasts with pickled and grilled chicory; violet artichokes stewed in olive oil, goats curd and mint; and ham hock, lentils, dandelion and mustard. Of the mains, I though long and hard about the grilled calves kidneys, bobby beans, roast shallots and anchovy; and the cod, samphire, coco beans and clams.
A mussel and bacon chowder was silky, but also chunky and flavoursome, as required. I had a precise and pleasing beetroot salad with a soft boiled duck egg and (either home-smoked or very well sourced) anchovy fillets. The best of the bunch, though, was probably my pal’s preserved rabbit salad. He was disappointed that it didn’t come as a whole animal, stuffed or in a jar of formaldehyde (I was less surprised). Rather, generous shreds of moist rabbit with a slight tang of vinegar were served with al dente butter beans, slow roast tomatoes and a good aioli. All tasty food and better than the norm; I can’t say I’ve seen a variation of that rabbit salad elsewhere.
The three of us went for poultry for our main courses. An exemplary and generous confit duck leg was served with duck fat potato cake, braised chicory and a prune and seemed to go down very well. Rabbit boy took on a pair of roast quails. They looked excellent, with a slight pink blush, and were served with good seasonal broad beans. I liked the provision of the finger bowl of water – a statement that you really should pick these up with your fingers and scrap for the meat. Nice.
Unusually for me I went for a chicken dish (perhaps there’s something in the air, as people with their fingers somewhere near to the pulse will know): slow roast chicken, borlotti beans, spinach and girolles. The accompaniments were excellent and it was certainly a well-flavoured bird. A thigh and a leg were very enjoyable, though I felt the portion of breast on my plate was not as moist and tender as it might have been.
Desserts were eschewed in favour of a second bottle of red (a predominantly French list at the upper end of the twenties and beyond) and a plate of excellent cheese. I’m afraid I don’t recall the specific selection, but they were all very well kept.
So there you go. We ate enjoyable, above average to very good food and drank well, if not cheaply. But I left a little sad that I wasn’t more excited about the place as a venue and experience. I think some of that is down to eating out too often; Magdalan would certainly serve a purpose as a cracking business lunch spot for all those accountants and lawyers across the road, and a very good neighbourhood restaurant, for all those accountants and lawyers living on Bermondsey Street. But I also think it’s a shame that it isn’t, for my taste at least, somewhere that serves up the whole package of good food, good buzz and charm, and therefore might not be worth going out of the way to get to.
Magdalen in three words
Good local restaurant.
Upper mid-level pricing. £7.50 to £9.50 starters, £17.50 to £18.50 maincourse with sides for £3.50 to £4.50. Desserts about £6.
magdalenrestaurant.co.uk – 152 Tooley St, SE1 2TU – 020 7403 1342