Before we get on with all the good things this week — and there are many, many really quite good things — let me first say this: no one will necessarily be sprinting to The Dairy Bermondsey for the view.
The original location of Robin and Sarah Gill’s revered restaurant (the one that, owing to the pandemic, permanently closed in August) virtually bordered the verdant, picture-book expanse of Clapham Common. But here, squirrelled away in the glossy rump of a recently developed hospitality complex, things are different. Here, meals are conducted in front of double-height windows that provide a majestic panorama of… a massive building site.
‘It’s going to be flats and offices’, said our waitress, following our eyes out to the bleakly captivating sight of protective sheeting flapping in the wind and hi-vis workers trudging through drizzle. ‘So we’re hoping that there’ll be more of an ecosystem out there eventually.’ Now, it’s tempting to think of this as a living parable for the difficult compromises that restaurateurs face in the Covid-19 era; a reminder that survival is now contingent on squeezing your vision into something other than its intended context.
But I mention it, mostly, because it’s a measure of the talents of the Gills that the lurking presence of excavators and hard hats never fully upstages what is happening on the plate or in the room. Even in the sort of cavernous, new-build shell that can mortally scupper plenty of restaurants, The Dairy Bermondsey, through sheer force of personality and culinary imagination, blazes with a rare confidence and immense likeability.
Which is not to say there weren’t some early red flags. As the restaurant is hidden within a new ‘aparthotel’ called Bermonds Locke, my wife and I spent our first moments there bewilderedly wandering through a mobbed, parodically groovy co-working space (abstract video installation, giant beanbags, acoustic cover of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ on the stereo) before we found The Dairy’s commodious, plant-strewn berth. Most of the gleaming terrazzo tables were unoccupied but there was a gang of new mums next to us, hemmed in by a wagon train of spotless Bugaboos and happily working through a carafe of white wine.
The food on the concise menu here is hard to pin down. One way to understand it is through the filter of chef Robin Gill’s Irish instinct to satisfy, his youthful wanderings around South East Asia, Italy and Scandinavia, and a kind of Instagram age kitchen-sink maximalism. So a hidden dome of ricotta and toasted seeds came elegantly garnished with slender, green coins of courgette, both raw and roasted in something with the salty thwack of soy. Broad bean puree with grilled radicchio was lifted by vigorous seasoning and an electric layer of pickled onions. And ‘Willie’s mackerel’ — a smoky, bubbled and blackened piece of fish adrift in a pond of dashi broth — kept up the theme of punch and prettiness.
Not everything clicked. Pulled, wood-roasted lamb with sweetcorn polenta felt a little wet and characterless; fennel-rammed house pickles gave me unwelcome sambuca flashbacks; and potatoes in ‘sexy fat’ were decidedly softcore. But as an unbeatable counterpoint to all that, I give you the chocolate salted caramel pudding: a spurting choux bun set in biscuity chocolate soil that hit the precise sweet spot between sophisticated patisserie and plate-licking childish abandon.
More than anything else, perhaps, it spoke to the confident exuberance that will hopefully be core to the future of the Gills’ revived operation. The view may be a literal work in progress, but The Dairy Bermondsey already stands as a reminder that something born from frantic necessity can still be a vessel for pure, boundless joy.
The Dairy Bermondsey
1 Sourdough loaf £3.50
1 House preserves £2
1 Salad of courgettes £6
1 Small grilled radicchio and broad bean puree £6
1 Willie’s mackerel £11
1 Wood roasted lamb £14
1 Roasted pink fir potatoes £4.50
1 Chocolate salted caramel £7.50
2 Kernel Table Beers £10
2 English breakfast teas £6
Bermonds Locke, 153-157 Tower Bridge Road, SE1 (thedairybermondsey.com)