Image credit: Arno@www.eatwithyoureyes.net
So. Where were we? Oh yes. It was rainy and far too cold to be the end of August, and I'd worn silly shoes and my feet were wet. We'd just been to see Le Refuge at the Renoir, and were in the Marquis of Cornwallis having a drink to warm up before the damp journey home. I was wondering why we were in the pub and not just on our way home already, but it seemed important that we killed some time in the pub. The Mister was being twinkly-eyed and mysterious in that cute mischievous way he does so well.
Me: It's been a lovely day, but my feet are a bit wet now. (Cursing stupid sandals.) Shall we go home?
Mister: No, let's just stay here a bit longer.
Me: Why? The weather's not very nice. Let's go home and get cosy.
Mister: Are you getting hungry?
Me: Not really. Well, a bit. But I can wait until we get home. (Not wanting to appear to expect any other treats, like a restaurant dinner. Although of course, not wanting the day to just end there, all soggy and emotionally pummelled by enjoyable, but strange, French cinema).
Mister: Oh good. Because I'm afraid we're not going to a restaurant.
Me: That's OK! (A little too brightly.) It's been a lovely day. Thank you.
Mister: Let's give it ten more minutes here and then we'll go.
Me: O..kay. (Still expecting that he's pulling my leg and that we're going for dim sum or something. He knows I love dim sum.)
Mister: We've just got to call in on a mate of mine before we go home.
Me: What? Who? (mildly incensed)
Mister: Just a guy I know, called Arno. In Brixton.
Me: Really? I don't know any mate of yours called Arno...(smiling knowingly - thinking I've cottoned on to an alternative plan)
Mister: Yep. Sorry. (completely po-faced). I've got to pick up some weed for my friend Lila. Arno's a mate of a mate, if you know what I mean. I promised I'd stop by this week.
Me: Can we not go see Arno some other day? Surely Lila can wait?! It's bleeding horrible outside. In case you hadn't noticed, I wore terribly inappropriate footwear and I'm a bit cold and soaking wet all over. And I don't really want to visit some dealer! And... (bottom lip trembles a bit at this stage)...it's my birthday!
Mister: It's on our way home. I promise it won't take long. Just a quick 10 minute detour and we'll get warmed up with something lovely at home, I promise (flashes his winning smile).
And so we were on our way, deep underground until we got out at Brixton in the rush hour home, rain still streaming down,making the high street look like a watercolour canvas. We stopped at a cash point and I saw the Mister take out a small wedge that made me begin to question just how much weed we might be buying. And why on earth Lila couldn't buy her own. The twinkly-eyed thing had definitely worn off. By the time we were past the Ritzy, I was raging.
We turned the corner onto Saltoun Road and stopped somewhere near the middle. The Mister rang the doorbell. I muttered something bad-tempered about it looking like a drug-dealer's house. Gosh, I'm petulant. How would I know? Of course it didn't. Then the door was opened by a very salubrious-looking young man in an apron. He was all groomed in that East London kind of way - you know, brylcreemed and retro-cool. I had to admit I still had no idea what was going on, until he beamed and invited us in. "I'm Will," he said. "I'm filling in tonight. Do follow me upstairs." It was then that I began to twig (yes, I'm pretty slow) that this probably wasn't a drug dealer's house at all. Part of me did wonder if we were entering a den of meditation or some kind of new-age therapy; and given that I was being so mare-ish, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was a couples-counseling session we'd walked into. But the Mister's face told me everything I needed to know - that it was going to be fun.
We walked upstairs, past a few bicycles hanging up, past a few arty knick-knacks including a Gilbert & George swear box, a fluorescent Virgin Mary in the bathroom, and lots of books. And then we arrived in the kitchen/diner, which was absolutely gorgeous.
The room was impeccably turned out - romantic lighting, laid out for dinner with four tables, two seating two, one seating four and the largest seating seven. There were things to look at wherever you turned your head - woven baskets on some of the walls, butterflies and bits of fishing tackle on others, vases, flowers, just lots of bits of somebody's life who obviously likes to collect. Will offered to take our coats and I was still looking around,open-mouthed, taking it all in. The Mister explained that it was my birthday, it was a surprise visit for me, and that it was our first time here. Will saw the need to elaborate. "It's a supper club," he explained. "Twice a week we can seat up to 16 guests. Let me introduce you to the chef, Arno." Sure enough, there was Arno - stylish, moustachioed, nothing like a drug dealer - busy in the kitchen. He took time out to shake our hands and greet us before turning back to his work.
It was at that point that the Mister realised he had forgotten to pick up a bottle of wine (which would have given the game away), so he nipped out and I was left to explore the sensory feast that is the Saltoun Supper Club. We were the first to arrive, so I was free to explore the 'smoking room' upstairs, a large loft conversion that houses many of Arno's history books (there's a theme: if you visit, see if you can spot it). As guests began to arrive, and the Mister arrived with our wine, we chatted a bit to our fellow diners, asking them how they had heard about the place (one diner was Arno's downstairs neighbour, who had family visiting from Australia and wanted to show them his nearest great local restaurant - they hadn't realised just quite how near it would be, another had just google-searched 'supper clubs'). The atmosphere was quite different to that of any other ordinary restaurant, with everyone making a concerted effort to chat, much like at any dinner party - you could almost imagine everyone playing a game of cards or scrabble in between courses. I immediately fell in love with the idea of holding one: although I'm sure it would be much more stressful than Arno made it look.
Soon, the first of five courses was served - a fresh summer vegetable salad with blanched julienned courgettes, romanesco cauliflower and feta, served with a drizzle of lemon, olive oil and black sesame seeds. Everything was fresh, with the vegetables sourced locally from the market in Brixton. It was a great start to the meal and cleansed the palate nicely with fresh, summery, zingy flavours that made us forget the biblical rain outside. We were given a basket of fresh bread which helped us mop up the last of the dressing. Yummy.
The next course was duck rillettes served with cornichons, pickled onions and more of the lovely bread. We chatted and relaxed, with Will keeping us topped up with wine, and enjoyed the atmosphere. I apologised profusely to the Mister, who had outdone himself. I'd forgotten all about the rain, my shoes, the proposed drug deal, and was slipping nicely into an overindulgent cordon-bleu coma. He'd enjoyed the whole thing immensely and maintains that I'm just too much of a control freak to really enjoy surprises. He may be right. Anyway, that's beside the point.
The next course was the main: whole sea bass stuffed with herbs and served with sugar snap peas, potatoes and a creamy saffron sauce. I didn't get a very good picture of this, but you get the idea: charming and delicious. Arno's presentation is first-class. I learned by reading Jay Rayner's review of the supper club that he is also a food photographer/stylist, which makes a lot of sense.
The evening lazed by, with breaks upstairs in the smoking room to chat with others, browse the books, or actually have a smoke. How very civilised. The rain pounding the smoking room's velux windows actually began to sound terribly romantic and Parisian, that's how cosy (and tipsy) I was. Before we knew it, we were already at dessert. By then I was completely stuffed, and so I did my level best with the delicious homemade chocolate brownie with fresh raspberries, but just couldn't finish the homemade chocolate slabs with ganache. A shame, because patisserie and desserts are clearly Arno's forté.
Arno, bless him, came around to the tables once everyone had finished and was having their coffee or mint tea and petits fours with fresh fruit, to check on our enjoyment of the evening. Not in a militaristic way, but in a way that said, 'I love food, and I've enjoyed cooking for you tonight, so I hope you've loved my food this evening'. When he came to our table, Will had presented me with a tiny plate of square miniature sponge birthday cakes decorated with fruit and fresh cream, which I had to ask if I could take home in a box, just because my cake-intake levels that day were off the scale -see my previous post. They were delicious - we enjoyed them for an indulgent breakfast treat the next day.
It was all so lovely, and Arno and Will (or whoever usually helps Arno out) deserve as much great publicity as possible. I know that there's a birthday sheen on this review, but I'm definitely going back with 6 friends to fill up that big table.