Living in Croydon involves an abundance of contradictions. Royal Mail tells you you’re in Surrey, even though you’re certain you live in a London borough. South Croydon, where I’m lucky enough to call home, is leafy, disgustingly middle class, and all but indistinguishable from the semi-rural towns over the border in Surrey proper. The rest is… not. A ten-minute stroll down the road is Albert’s Table, a fine dining restaurant cowering timidly among the finest kebab and fried chicken shops of South End – the borough’s gastronomical nexus between south and central Croydon.
The restaurant, which has managed to survive in this unlikely spot since 2008, does what any self-consciously middle class berk in pink trousers and a navy blazer would do – try to look invisible. The awning is black with plain white lettering, though not plain enough to be stylish, and the interior is concealed behind a white sheer curtain like a high-class sex shop. Despite this, a peep was all I needed to know this was the place to take the girlfriend, what with its candlelight and crisp white linen. A given in Soho, perhaps, but in Croydon this is like stumbling across El Dorado.
The actual ambience of the restaurant is very good, and there’s an element of feeling safely tucked away in another world, like hiding out in a treehouse before any of the other kids have found it. The lighting and table presentation get top marks, though the décor itself is decidedly hotel-y with its off-white panelling and tasteless pictures. Definite room for improvement, even in Croydon.
All is forgiven with the quality of the food, though. The shortcrust tart of Dorset crab is the only thing you need to order from the starters, and its legendary status is well deserved. Cut from a large, plate-sized tart, the dish benefits from an economy of scale of flavour. Like everything else on the menu, it’s incredibly rich, and crabbier than a badger disturbed in an intimate moment by Bill Oddie. It even has a recommended pairing on the wine list – the Picpoul de Pinet – which, despite being the second-cheapest bottle on a two-and-a-half page list going up to £70, is a surprisingly good wine. Even if it does have a hideous label.
This being Lent, I had little choice but to order the grilled sea bass and brown shrimp with potato pancake, cauliflower, Vichy style vegetables, sage and hazelnut butter. Heavily buttered, it was a classic fine dining fish dish – well seasoned, well presented, and very enjoyable, but nothing especially to write home about. Surprisingly, the girlfriend also chose the sea bass, so no comparison with any of the meat dishes was possible. Not to worry, a second trip in Ordinary Time is definitely on the cards.
For dessert, we took the unusual step of sharing one dish between us, which was largely due to the richness of the food thus far. Not that I’m one to pooh-pooh rich food, but it had got a little much by this point, even with the Picpoul de Pinet cutting through its greatest excesses. That said, what we ordered – the crème caramel soufflé – was outstanding. Rich, but moist and light, it was accompanied by exceptionally bright golden raisins, offset by a dollop of vanilla ice cream, lounging on a sort of fortune cookie club chair. It was the ideal happy ending to a stimulating, but at times rigorous, gastronomical massage.
Albert’s Table is no Fat Duck. But, as an out of town establishment, is does manage to just about fight its corner with Central venues like Quo Vadis. Even if it would be relegated in the first round. It even has a weekly menu, based on locally sourced produce, though this is only served until 7.30pm. The only element by which it fell short of its reputation was the service. We waited an incredibly long time to get our bill, even though the restaurant was by that point empty. Our waiter was a cartoon maître d’, and created a rather awkward situation by continuing to very insistently show me the bottle even while I was actually tasting the wine. It was a surreal start to an otherwise sublime evening but, then, Croydon would be nothing without such contradiction.