A secret in Southwark: sunshine food at Lupins

A few weeks ago we went on a double date to Smokestak with our friends Maxine and Rich, who were up for the weekend from Bristol. As normal people who don’t feel compelled to Instagram their dinner or keep up with the latest food fads, they are in equal measure baffled and irritated by my obnoxious blogger habits, like taking pictures of everything and just generally being a bit of a douche about whatever I’m about to shove down my gaping maw.

“These are just words,” said Rich, squinting at the menu. “Beetroot, goat’s cheese and hazelnuts!?”

“A classic combination!” I said, in the kindly tones of one addressing the hard of thinking. “You’ve definitely heard of it.”

Rich gave me a look both mystified and withering, confirming my mother’s assertion that my blog is the most pretentious thing she’s ever read. “Ah, of course! Yes. Salt and pepper. Fish and chips. Beetroot, goat’s cheese and hazelnut, those classic combinations.”

And, well. We’re both right. Because beetroot, goat’s cheese and hazelnuts do go together very well. But, yes, to be fair, I am a bit of a wanker sometimes. 1-1.

God knows what Rich would have made of the menu at Lupins, because it is full of combinations that may not be recognisable classics yet, but will be very, very soon. I’m quite sure of it.

Roasted hake with nduja risotto (£9).

I’m talking about roast hake in a luscious swamp of spicy n’duja risotto and thick shavings of smooth Coolea cheese, which was new to me but tastes a lot like Gouda. I’m talking about ceviche on a pureed ‘salad’ of avocado and mango rather than in the customary tiger’s milk, served taco-style in chicory salad cups. I’M TALKING ABOUT…spring onions fried in cornmeal, crispy tendrils petrified in batter with a generous dollop of glossy homemade chipotle mayo.

This last one was one of my actual favourites of the evening, particularly as I can imagine the chef bunging a clutch of spring onions in a deep-fat fryer and screaming, “Mad! They said I was mad! I’ll show them! And I’ll charge them £7 for it!”

Even the bread and butter (£3) has a lot going on. The former comes as thick wodges of sourdough fresh from the bakery next door, and the latter is browned and whipped into silken, caramelised submission.

We bagsed the last spatchcocked spiced quail (£10) as we came in because how could we not, and what arrived was irrefutable proof that the person in charge of the deep fat fryer downstairs was nothing short of an artist. I rarely order tiny game birds because I am too lazy to pull apart their sad little bones, but this is worth the graft. Normally I’d assume a dish selling out by 7pm was a sign of very poor planning on the part of the kitchen, but in this case I suspect they just underestimated London’s appetite for extremely upmarket KFC.

Cornish crab thermidor (£9) was a lesson in lusciousness, a zillion-calorie romance of crabmeat and cream with a thick golden crust and a dinky salad on top to give the illusion that it wasn’t something that might kill you if you had too much of it. If I was being picky – and I always am – I’d say I could have done with some more garlic bread.

The most conventional dishes we tried were a) lamb rump with smoky baba ganoush, charred broccoli and tahini (£12), which was sensational but safe, and b) a chocolate ganache with the mouth-coatingly decadent consistency of wet concrete, and the accompanying ingredients du jour, sesame and salted caramel (£6).

Many of these small plates restaurants use their dining format as an excuse to spew out dishes in any old order, which can sometimes result in essential carbs rolling in ten minutes after everything else has been eaten. Lupins deliberately brings out dishes in order of heaviness, with lots of breathing space in between, which makes it more of a choose-your-own-adventure tasting menu than the usual whirlwind of gluttony.

The restaurant itself is tiny. Smaller than your living room, assuming you live in London and pay something in the region of £800 a month for a share of a communal area you could piss across. It goes without saying that you will require a reservation, but that’s okay, because they’re happy for you to make one. The downstairs, which is missing a wall and opens out straight onto indoor food hub Flat Iron Square, has a handful of seats at a counter, a tiny open kitchen and a yo-yoing dumbwaiter. Upstairs there are literally eight tables and a skeleton crew of cheerful wait staff. It’s lovely.

Lupins describes its fare as ‘sunshine food’, a turn of phrase I would ordinarily find nauseatingly naff. But the space is so sweet and the staff are so smiley and the food is so sincerely and charmingly spirited, on this occasion I’ll let it pass.

Lupins, 66 Union Street, London, SE1 1TD  

Author: Emily Gibson

Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.