I was away for my birthday this year in delicious France. When I landed home I had just one measly night with Mikey before heading off again for work. Like the wizard he is, he booked us a table somewhere local and lovely.
The restaurant is on a road he lived on many, many years ago. I love this road for its memories. I first met Mikey 13 years ago. I would call in on him there at all hours of the night, after bar shifts and parties. Whether he’d invited me or not. I’ve never been one to dick about guys: if I’m keen, I’m flipping keen.
The Orchard looks and feels gorgeous. Woody and warm. Noisy and bustling. There are books and a fish tank; it’s like someone’s giant lounge but with chefs in. It feels simple, uniform and effortless in how relaxed it is.
The soft-drink selection excelled itself. I had fresh cherryade. Deep and sweet, it was like a liquid pudding without ever being sickly or filling. It was so delicious, so moody. It tasted of decadence, of a giant lie-in or of a really long kiss.
Our waiter explained our order might take a while so would we like some free bread and olives? Err, would a bear shit in the Vatican? Of course we wanted free nibbles. The olives came with pickles. Salty and sour with an exciting sprinkle of fennel seeds. The bread was dense and crusty. Dipped in oil it hit our waiting tummy-caves right on the spot.
We weren’t in any sort of rush but, in the end, our starters didn’t take that long at all. They were excellent. We did our favourite thing and ordered two dishes we both wanted and swapped at half time.
First was baked spiced salt marsh lamb shoulder samosas, roasted mango, and yoghurt dressing. It was the highlight of the night. Crispy, light filo, filled with the most precision-spiced and lean meat. The mango chunks and puree, doused with herbs and yoghurt: oof, what a collaboration. It was such a pioneering combination. It ought already to be timeless. It’s what it must have felt like for whoever first watched Ant WITH Dec.
Squid goes so well with Asian flavours and the crunchy leeks were a great addition. That almost burned-onion taste was well cushioned by the sweet plum. If there was ever a championship of the seeds for the ‘top seed’ I’d put my money on sesames. They’re natural born winners.
From these heady heights it was mains time. All of them had sounded pretty complicated. Indeed, they ended up being a little bit too much so.
Mikey had sautéed escalope of Sussex rose veal, rosemary and shallot beignets, artichokes, tomato and apple ragu. The veal was insanely rare. In hindsight we should have sent it back. I’m pregnant and Mikey’s not French. It had been nicely seared but that was it. There’s fresh and there’s virtually still mooing. I flipping love an artichoke whatever it’s doing, so they were fun. Someone could have removed their woody edges. The beignets were beautiful. Small doughnut-like balls full of savoury goodness. They went really well with the tomato part of the ragu.
The apple in there wasn’t my best, though. Apples and tomatoes are both tangy but in ways that jar for me, sour with earthy. It was more complicated than the format of Only Connect. And dinner isn’t even meant to be a quiz. It needed reining in and having its basics fixed.
Then pan-fried Welsh red trout, pepper and almond sauce, Swiss chard, fried polenta. The fish and polenta were splendid. I especially loved the crispy skin on the fish and the bite to the edge of the maize. The sauce looked like it was going to have inordinately more force than it did, though. So as nice as all the textures were, no big flavours came to the fore. Pleasant, but not quite memorable.
We cared not. The dazzling start of our night had made the adventure very worthwhile. I suppose if there’s a bit of a meal for a restaurant to get right you’d have to say it was the main bit. But we still had a top time. We’ll be going back. The starters were exceptional. If the mains ever get as unfussy and as lovely as the décor, then it’ll become the perfect place.
The Orchard, 5 Harefield Road, Brockley, London, SE4 1LW
Tel: 0208 692 4756
Open: Mon – Fri 11am – 11pm, Sat 10am – 11pm, Sun 10am – 10.30pm
Accessible: Yes. It’s all on one floor and step-free. There isn’t loads of room inside but the doorways are all relatively wide. There is a nice big toilet which is step-free but it isn’t especially adapted.