My heart did sink a little bit when, having walked all the way down a quiet residential, leafy road in Dulwich, we arrived at an industrial kitchen.
You see, I had not done any pre-dinner homework, as I wanted to have a prejudice-free experience.
After a very warm welcome, we were seated at a table for 8, already populated by other shy and slightly suspicious guests.
We really were bang inside an industrial kitchen. Not the styled-fancy-faux-canteen look of The River Café, but a proper, working, functional – and spotless clean! – full-on kitchen.
There were health and safety placards everywhere, oversized dishwashers, piles of aprons neatly ironed on shelves. You walk through the staff changing rooms to go to the loo. From my table, I could see into a little office with the flying Windows screensaver flickering away. Dinner will really have to be outstanding to make this worth the visit, I thought.
Suzanne James is an established caterer and a wonderful, warm and charismatic host. I know it is a cliché to say how nice it is to meet people who love their work, but she so clearly does.
The entire menu was created around seasonal ingredients. There was a (really, really wonderful) starter of line caught Cornish mackerel and the main of veal blanquette used british rose’ veal, supported by the Compassion in World Farming animal welfare group.
After some initial awkwardness – and some more wine – Julia and I finally overcame our immaturity and included the couple next to us in the conversation. I can’t believe I forgot his name, but the man belonged to a rare species: an artist who actually lives off his paintings. I will do my very best to remember his name and find out whether I like his work. Anyway, they were both very nice and managed to make the tale of their journey from China to South London on the Siberia Express, along with their twin teenage daughters, really fascinating. I’d normally fall asleep, dreading the appearance of the photo album and slides projection. But they were genuinely engaging and made the scary experience of sharing a table with strangers really delightful.
And then there was dessert.
Now, this is only an observation and NOT a criticism. Dessert was excellent. I just wanted to make a little anthropological comment. Why do British chefs feel the absolute necessity of always (I really mean every single time, with no exceptions whatsoever) marrying passion fruit and mangoes? They are both delicious. And they go together well too. But when did we establish that they should never be separated? Go to any supermarket and you will have mango and passion fruit yogurt, juice, ice cream. Never just one ingredient alone. Never mango with something else. It is always passion fruit and mango, irrevocably combined.
Maybe I find this so bemusing because I grew up in a place full of tropical fruit and we just tended to pick them up and eat them without too much fuss.
In some towns, the stuff is so abundant you’ll see ladders left by the side of mango trees for you to help yourself.
But back at the supper club, the passion fruit mango tart was such a hit! It came with a sort of brandy snap biscuit, which really was the highlight of my week. I wish I had a tin of those biscuits right now. Just the right crunchy consistency, carameley but not sickening, resistant enough to take in a dollop of pie filling without falling apart. I loved it.
Fair trade chocolate truffles came in big martini glasses and there was plenty for everyone. This was served with the only, but unfortunately big let down of the evening: the coffee. Full marks for it being organic and fair trade. But this is London and it is 2010. It does bring me close to tears to see the only coffee available served in caffetieres. Not an espresso in sight. Everything else was magnificent and I was enjoying the company too much to grill them about it. Suzanne really is in the right job and was born to entertain. She made a point of sitting down with us for a bit and eagerly encouraged feedback from all of us. She told us all we wanted to know about the food, the business, the weddings and parties she plans. Some of the guests had met each other at previous supper club meetings, so I can’t be alone in loving the place.
But leaving the coffee experience aside for now, I was so happy to discover this gem of a place so close to home. I will be back next month.
It scores all the points the Ethically Challenged was looking for:
1. food: oh so very delicious.
2. ethical points: 9 out of 10 in our just-thought-of rudimentary ethical scoring system. Only the fruit wasn’t local. But have a look at Suzanne’s environmental ethos and you will agree that we scored gold on our 1st attempt. They recycle 80% of their waste, part of which is used in bio-diesel conversion and composting schemes. Of all their efforts to work in a sustainable way, my favourite is how they choose to serve water. It’s either tap water or bottled FRANK water, which funds clean water project in developing countries.
3. ambiance: give it a chance and you will be surprised. I had a great time.
4. price: bargain. 25 pounds bought us a gin and elderflower cordial cocktail, 5 rounds of superb canapés (truffle and roastbeef; English mushrooms – I never knew they could be so porcini-like; and courgettes), generous starter, main, dessert and chocolates. And I won’t mention the coffee.
If eating the ethical way is as easy as that, I am in for a fast piling of the pounds this month.