He likes a pop-up, does James Donnelly. Billing Donnelly’s as a “moveable” restaurant, the chef has proved his point with stints at Louie Louie, regular food business incubator The Sun & 13 Cantons, and is now nestling in at the appealingly industrial Bermondsey Bar and Kitchen. For how long, I can’t tell you but, given the crowds there on a Tuesday night in February, I suspect it could be a while.
The Donnelly’s approach is billed as “European small plates” and that’s a pretty accurate reflection. There’s a hint of France, a decent chunk of Scandinavia, lots of British seasonality, and pickles that provide bite and texture throughout the menu. One suspects that somewhere James has a very well-thumbed copy of Salt Fat Acid Heat…
Let’s get the one misfire out of the way first. A snack of slow-cooked ox cheek on rye toast with pickled cucumber read like a dream and certainly looked the part. However, while the texture was delightfully unctuous, it was somewhat underwhelming in flavour.
Having slow cooked LOTS of things at home, I suspect this means that, somewhere in the kitchen, there’s a pan full of glossy, intensely beefy, cooking juices. As a result, the pickled cucumber, while a lovely, crunchy foil to the cheek’s tenderness, adds acid brightness to a dish that can’t cope with it. As one of the first things the diner’s going to eat, it’s a little unsettling… And then every other dish is so good, it suggests that the ox cheek was probably just one of those things.
Cobble Lane cured meat croquettes were gamey yet light, albeit with the hottest filling, although the wild mushrooms on toast, with garlic and Graceburn cheese, entertained us wonderfully while we waited for them to lose their napalm-esque qualities. Actually, the mushrooms did more than entertain: it’s one of the two reasons I’ll definitely be back to Donnelly’s before long.
The other reason is what seems to be the chef’s calling card: slow-cooked pork belly, sour cabbage, apple. It’s a description that completely undersells what is a superb plate of food (and one of several available as a small or large plate). While the slow cooking had worked its magic on the meat’s fatty melting nature, a burst of heat had added texture and crispness, and an almost bacon-like quality.
Elsewhere, the sweet softness of the apple was brought under control by the sharpness and bite of the cabbage, or possibly vice versa. Whichever way round, it’s a gorgeous dish that also comes swimming in a pool of gravy so brilliantly piggy and meaty it made the ox cheek even more baffling.
Other dishes didn’t dazzle to the same extent but we’re still neatly executed. A dill-heavy scallop and salmon tartare refreshed, a very nicely cooked piece of cod on green lentils with lemon brought more of that vinegar brightness to the table, and the ribeye was precisely medium rare as requested. Chips were a little perfunctory, but grilled broccoli (with hazelnuts and cider vinaigrette) and roast cauliflower (with capers and lemon) were both cracking sources of al dente acidity.
We wrapped things up with a spot-on spiced pear with (brilliant) walnut ice cream and winter granola, and a lemon meringue pie of crisp lightness and beautifully subtle citrus flavour.
Donnelly’s may not be revolutionary but it’s well worth a visit.
Bermondsey Bar and Kitchen