Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bonnes Addresses Brixton

Coming back to London after a few days vacation in Paris was unsurprisingly difficult. Part of it, of course, was that returning home also meant returning to work, to commuting and to all the rushing and hassle that was virtually absent from our Paris stay. But I had also become re-accustomed to the convenience and proximity of things I consider important to my daily quality of life: bakeries, a butcher, vegetable stands and a cheese shop, a convivial local café, a knowledgeable wine merchant and some interesting places to eat out. In my old Paris neighborhood, which we visited again over the August Bank Holiday, each of these was represented with a choice and quality that usually made it unnecessary to venture outside a 10-minute radius.

Brixton doesn’t yet provide all of these amenities. Top-quality meat is still a tube journey away, as is a full selection of cheese and an independent wine merchant. Though there’s wonderful bread, it can’t be bought after work or on a Sunday. But, fortuitously, my return to the neighbourhood has coincided with the opening of some food-related businesses which aren’t merely local, but genuinely good. (And if you don’t believe me, the New York Times is on the trail too.)

First was the pizza, now we have pasta too, another tiny, unprepossessing joint delivering seriously impressive food. Six days a week, Dario Bellantoni turns out a few pans of deceptively simple vegetable lasagnas, some homemade fruit tarts and plates of antipasti. Fresh pasta can be made to order with a few hours notice. His little brother shows up to bus tables and make coffee on Thursday evenings, the one night the market arcade stays open late. A gelato machine is on the way, due to arrive from his mother in Italy later this month. (His mother’s influence can also be seen in the frequent appearance of red cabbage, popular in Italy’s formerly Austrian and Yugoslav territories, and in an occasional, strudel, tender and flaky.)

I’d come just for the lasagna, but welcome, banter and little extras make me feel like I’m being fed by a (very talented) friend.

London’s Antipodean population has done much to raise the standards of local coffee provision, bringing with them flat whites, well-sourced beans and an admirable blend of precision and laid-back charm. The latest outpost for their talents is another daytime-only spot in Granville Arcade. Service is switched-on and friendly, cakes and homely and well-priced (the blueberry friand and anything with streusel are particularly recommended) and the coffee—small batches roasted just off Brick Lane— the best for miles around.

Brockwell Park is an easy 20-minute stroll away from the centre of Brixton. While lacking the pulling power of more famous parks north of the river, it does boast views of the City of London, a walled garden, greenhouses (on which more soon) and a rambling historic house. Its most unusual feature, though, is a 1930s outdoor swimming pool, or lido. Recent restoration work added a poolside café. It’s far better than it needs to be, with an interesting list of drinks (including grüner veltliner by the glass and a lovely Champagne-style Cornish cider) and good brunch options. On a bright day, when the sun glints off the pool, the world feels, for a moment, practically perfect.

And without forgetting:

I’m embarrassed to discover that I’ve never written about this long-established favourite. It deserves at least one blog post all its own.

There’s a bit of an identity crisis going on here, but the bread, particularly the rustic sourdough cafone, and the German-style seeded rye, remains unimpeachable.

In a neighborhood where people of different ethnicity and income level often shop in separate locations, the Sunday market provides a bit of common ground. The pumpkins and apples are multiplying each week now, though the last beans and berries are still lingering on. My favourite? The orange-yolked eggs sold by a perpetually-sunburned Pole.

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