Originally published in CityAM on 17 November 2015
The times they are a changin’ down on Bermondsey Street. One of the finest Italian kitchens in London and a long-time standard bearer of transpontine dining, is set to close before Christmas. Rising rent prices have reportedly forced the closure. The arrival of Fulham Shore-owned Franco Manca further points to an area of London commanding increasingly high rents.
This has led to an inevitable land-grab. The latest reclaimed space to open its doors is The Bermondsey Yard Cafe. Occupying a former car park at the very north end of the street, the entrance is tucked round the back of a building and is, when I first tried to visit, not particularly welcoming.
I swung open the heavy iron gate and found the door. Behind it was someone looking at a laptop. I asked if I could eat.
“No, we’re closed,” she said.
“It’s just that your Facebook page, your sign outside and your website say you’re open.”
“Ah. Yeah, sorry, we’re closed.”
It’s a rough start, for sure, but everyone deserves a second chance. So I went back for lunch a week later and this time they were miraculously open. The menu is slightly different from what I expected – things arranged on toast, things arranged on boards – there’s little to order that requires more than a quick squizz under a salamander. It’s very much a cafe, rather than a dining, concept. There is no sign of the splashes of colour or the cosy booths described online. It’s a stark, cold, industrial space, all bare brick, painted concrete floor and a sweeping wooden bar.
The charcuterie board I ended up with beheld beautifully arranged meats served with lightly-grilled artichoke hearts and sharp, caper berries. A pistachio cookie, pomegranate and chopped date trifle sounds good, but failed to meet expectations. A biscuit topped with cream does not a trifle make.
But there remained enough hope for me to try again in the evening. The menu, now slightly closer to that advertised on the web and outside, is still a little disjointed and we find it difficult to put together a coherent meal. Apart from a soup of the day (red lentil, not ordered) little fits the bill as a starter.
We shared some padron peppers and an assembly of butternut squash, ricotta and hazelnuts. The peppers lack the blistered blackness that makes them sing, the three thick wedges of squash are blackened on the outside and raw within. The cooking of a pumpkin softens the flesh, caramelises the sugars and allows Americans to push it into a pie for pudding but we needed a knife to carve into it.
A minute steak was topped with a whole roasted shallot and lay over two Stilton croquettes; three good things that would have been more impressive had they not been clumsily piled on top of each other.
We also try a venison tagliata, perfectly-cooked and sliced thin, that is fanned across a king-size bed of red mustard frills and blanketed with Parmesan. It’s nice, in parts, but it doesn’t work as a main course.
A flourless chocolate rosewater cake with milk ice cream and blackberries starts to lift the spirits and a plate of cheeses from Neal’s Yard is generous, served French-style, with decent bread from Flour Station.
The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is an interesting space, with its outside space and DJ booth, has potential to be a great venue, especially when it simply assembles great local ingredients.
But it fails to shine next to other great Bermondsey restaurants like José, Village East, and Casse-Croûte, who continue to thrive, serving authentically dazzling food at reasonable prices.
The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is a curious, spacious, diversion from a host of more brilliant, intimate restaurants down the road, meaning it’s a sign of the times rather than the start of a trend.