Nothing quite beats the clandestine nature of a small local tapas bar with counter-only eating. And when such a joint opens in an unexpected location the thrill is even deeper.
We enjoyed our first experience at the Refreshment Rooms last year, but hadn’t been back since the owners took over the former church space next door and turned it into a dining room.
The new, larger venue creates an entirely different feel. Daytimes are still buzzy in the original counter side, all laptops, pots of tea and long blacks; on our visit, two very posh boys in sports caps were discussing house prices next to us.
Meanwhile, in the evening, the adjoining side room, beautifully laid with shimmering glassware and crockery, comes alive. The upshot? The atmosphere is more formal, yet staff still serve punters in their own relaxed get-the-joke way.
But the truth is the dishes weren’t quite so impressive as we remembered, even on a rainy November Tuesday night when the restaurant wasn’t anywhere near full.
Still, an attractive plate of charcuterie was enticing – salami toscano sidling up to little discs of bread and tapenade – while rose veal came pleasingly seasoned with caper berries.The first small dish to really impress, however, was Crottin de Chavignol, the famous goat’s cheese from the Loire, a deliciously moist and tangy accompaniment to beetroot and lentils. Meanwhile, a bowl of seared John Dory with clams was easy-going, in a broth that rewarded mopping up with pillowy sourdough. A duck confit wasn’t bad, either: engulfing a whole bed of carrots slow-cooked with rosemary, the flesh was tender, the skin crisp, and the stock moreish.
Throughout we sat in the dining room, perched in the window counter seats as commuters scurried home in persistent rain; it really was the most apocalyptic of nights. Despite a convenient location right by the overground, the Refreshment Rooms were seemingly less busy than either Artusi, where we had failed to get a table, and the Begging Bowl, also fully booked.
But no matter: it’s a trusted local – and yet not quite as special as it was before.
Words: Stephen Emms