Chapter Two

43-45 Montpelier Vale, SE3

What can I say about Chapter Two that most people don’t already know?

If you’re a fan don’t bother reading any more of this entry – I’ll be telling you nothing new. If you don’t know the place, read on.

Chapter Two is the sister restaurant of Chapter One in Locksbottom which has a Michelin star, but some I’ve spoken to actually prefer the Blackheath version. I can’t say – I’ve not been to Ch1 (yet…)

The two don’t share an exec chef. While Andrew McLeish resides at Ch1, Trevor Tobin is CH2′s chef and he has designed a Modern European menu ( I call it ‘small food’) that includes a mix of seasonal and classic dishes, all beautifully presented (miniature piles of food, exquisitely arranged with dibs and dribs of sauces in artistic patterns) but inexplicably filling.

What I like about the way these foods are balanced is that when they arrive, they don’t look much. They’re pretty enough, but don’t look like they’re going to satisfy. However, they are cleverly assembled so that they have a filling effect despite their size.

Here’s an example. I ordered the mackerel as a starter. It looked lovely – a small, rich, pan-fried slab balanced on something with an interesting pattern of something else arranged as a sauce. The something that the mackerel was balanced on was, I believe, based on Puy lentils and the sauce a reduction of aubergine. All three of these ingredients are rich and filling on their own. They arrived on my plate in exactly the right amounts to take up exactly the right amount of room in one’s stomach, to appetize, but leave room for the main course.

My companion’s Pea Veloute was even more unpromising to start with – a tiny lump of fried haddock balanced on top of mushy peas (I think they might have called them ‘crushed’ – that’s posh restaurants for you…) But as the waitress poured the bright, spring-green veloute around the haddock, it created a fabulous-looking dish – as well as a small theatrical experience.

The red onion tatin I chose as a main fulfilled a similar function – as much a feast for the eye and nose (and ear – the crackle as my knife pierced the outer layers sends a frisson of anticipatory excitement up the spine) as the mouth. Delicate flavours of baked onion with overtones of pastis and roasted salsify went a long way to the slight disappointment I felt as I reluctantly bit into the last mouthful, but once again, Tobin’s expertise in knowing exactly how much to supply on a plate was almost perfect.

I say ‘almost’ because, in the absolute perfect world of the chef’s expertise, one would actually be able to manage a pudding too. Sadly, there just was no way I was going to be able to fit in any more, but we studied the dessert menu anyway. I suspect we may have studied it a little too much, since it was an absolute delight – a nit-picker’s feast of grammatical error – spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, typos – you name it, it was here. Not something one would expect from a place as smart as this (though admittedly I had not noticed similar howlers on the main menu.)

The desserts themselves, however, looked divine. For once not relying heavily on chocolate as an ingredient (just two of the options included it, which was a welcome relief for me. I love chocolate – but not at the exclusion of anything else, and frankly after a meal, I usually prefer something a little lighter.) I was particularly attracted by the delightfully old-fashioned lemon posset and the baked vanilla yoghurt with rhubarb. Some of the dessert wines also looked fabulous.

In fact the wine list as a whole was excellent. There wasn’t a sommelier in sight when we went, but there was a condensed ‘sommelier’s choice’ list on the wine menu, which included some superb bottles, including Decanter award winners.

The decor has a smart, 1990s feel to it – if it doesn’t hail from then, it certainly feels like it – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s in no way anything other than immaculate – wooden floors, dark blue high-back chairs, lots of white linen. The smoked mirrors do a great job of making the place look richer – and larger – than it actually is – they work especially well downstairs in the much larger space (more room, no natural light, so better for winter meals.)

The service is friendly. The waitresses spoke a little more English than in most places around here, but ours still had to get the manager to answer an extremely basic question about the menu.

The prices aren’t cheap, but they are good for what you get. You’re expected to have at least two courses, though you could either choose a starter or a dessert as your second choice. Presumably if you have a large appetite you could have a third, too. Main courses are £ 12.95, starters and puds roll in at £ 5.50 each. On Friday and Saturday evenings you have to have the special deal at the special price of £ 24.50 for three courses.

We return to Chapter Two on an irregular-but-always-much-anticipated basis.

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