STEVEN DOWNES has found what is probably Croydon’s best restaurant
What follows is an entirely true story.
Recently, I treated the cleaning staff at Inside Croydon Towers to a visit to one of the town’s larger, busier restaurants. The place was packed, but they managed to find a table for us easily enough. It was before the warmer weather, so I was wearing a coat. The maitre d’, or at least senior waiter, offered to take my coat, saying, “Have you taken all your valuables, sir?”
Only in Croydon.
But there are some restaurants in Croydon which don’t make you think you’re about to be the victim of a mugging as you sit down to dinner, the best of which is surely Albert’s Table on South End.
While nearby competition Le Cassoulet has come and gone as a victim of the recession and a post-riots downturn, and the Fish and Grill across the road has opted for a change of approach, perhaps reflecting less demand for high-end restaurants, in the last five years Albert’s Table has stuck to its guns in terms of carefully sourced, quality ingredients, presented in a pleasant environment.
It’s fair to say that they are now regarded probably the area’s best top-end restaurant, earning themselves a listing in the 2012 Michelin Guide. This, though, is not to be confused with garnering a Michelin star – Tooting (yes, Tooting!) has a Michelin-starred restaurant; Croydon does not.
Albert’s Table might be the borough’s best chance of such an accolade; if Claire Rayner’s boy says it’s a good reason to go to Croydon to eat, then that is good enough for me, and ought to be for you.
I’ve always preferred their lunchtime to their dinner menu. It’s a good place to have a relaxed business meeting with some reliably good, and unpretentious, food, and usually with excellent, friendly service, the kind of which you’d normally find at the likes of L’Escargot or The Ivy.
And the price point is important, a two-course lunch set menu at Albert’s Table can be had for no more than £15 (plus drinks, of course). Yet if you go there for dinner, perhaps for a special occasion, even just for two people, you are probably looking at a bill of an austerity-busting £100 once you opt to select from the restaurant’s wine list.
This month there’s a special promotion at the restaurant with discounted prices on lunches and dinners, with three courses offered for the price of two: such a lunch will cost £21.50, dinner £28.
In online reviews, the restaurant receives consistent praise for its excellence of offer and reasonable prices.
Beware, though, because the management tries to operate what it calls “a discretionary service charge”, which is nothing of the sort, but is instead a 12.5 per cent surcharge.
An assurance that “100 per cent … goes to the staff” does not alter the fact that what they are doing is actually disguising their true prices to diners – unless, of course, your host is prepared to contend with the potential embarrassment of contesting this non-discretionary “discretionary service charge” when it comes to paying the bill. If you want to tip the staff, you should be able to do so, without such an obligation.
If you avoid the risk of getting indigestion from looking at the foot of the menu, glancing elsewhere on the card usually offers plenty of more palatable temptations.
In the past, the Dorset crab tart has always been a good way to start. Jay Rayner thought so, too; his Observer review dates from 2011, and while the menu does change seasonally, it is good to see that chef and co-owner Joby Wells sticks with those dishes that he knows works well.
I can recommend the vodka-marinated lemon sole – delicate fish which has only been “cooked” by being left to soak in alcohol for a good while, a similar technique used with Gravadlax. It might not appeal to everyone, but for the more adventurous diner it is definitely worth a try, as the taste of the fish, and nothing else, is brought to the fore.
One regular main course on the menu is belly of pork, utilising an old English breed of pig, and which is a reliably excellent meal. I was less impressed with the loin of beef which I tried on a recent visit, which was disappointingly bland for what ought to have been a choice cut.
And that is one drawback with Albert’s Table of which I have become aware in recent times. For while the presentation on the plate is never less than stunning, the performance on the palate has become less impressive of late.
My companion tried “organic salmon” (do they mean wild? How is a fish that swims across the Atlantic and returns to the rivers of Britain certified as being “organic”?) with pasta pappardelle.
It received a comment from them that could only damn with faint praise: “It was pleasant, it was edible, but..,” they said.
“When I first came here a couple of years ago, there was always something about each dish that made you think ‘wow’, you are eating something special, tasting something really marvellous. That’s been missing of late.”
Which is all a bit of a pity. The problem may be that, when you go to your local top-end restaurant, your expectations are going to be top-end, especially since Albert’s Table has previously established such a high reputation. Perhaps, in these very difficult times for restauranteurs as well as diners, compromises have been made that have helped to keep the prices down and the place open, unlike its nearby rivals (Why does Croydon Council call it the “Restaurant Quarter”? Because only a quarter of the restaurants are still open…).
The Gourmet Month promotion is clearly aimed at attracting new custom, as well as encouraging past diners back during what is traditionally one of the quieter months of the year for business.
You are recommended to take the opportunity to visit Albert’s Table.
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source that is actually based in the heart of the borough – averaging 44,000 page views per month, Jan-Jun 2013
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- ‘They’re flogging our cultural gems’ (standard.co.uk)
- The world’s best restaurants, by Joel Robuchon (telegraph.co.uk)