In the dark days of January to April, at least once a week, almost every week, I ate a particular sandwich. The fillings changed weekly, the bread stayed the same: focaccia, dark, rich and almost malty with organic ancient grains; bathed in olive oil until gloriously squidgy, yet retaining a delicate crispness; sliced, unlike many others, to a precise thinness permitting an ideal ratio of filling to bread. The sandwich was always great, and sometimes it was glorious, as with the sausage and cime di rapa; the tortilla, aioli and rocket; or the uncompromising purity of the mortadella focaccia. They were not giant, dribbling #foodporn sandwiches stuffed with seventeen ingredients oozing down your forearms. They were compact, carefully considered, and pretty close to perfect.
So where can you get one of these exquisite sandwiches? You can’t. Café Deco stopped doing them last week. What you can have instead is the food that Anna Tobias set out to cook when she opened her restaurant in Bloomsbury in December, before she was forced to switch to takeaway lunches. And this is very exciting indeed, for Café Deco is a joint venture between Bermondsey's 40 Maltby Street and chef Anna, formerly of Rochelle Canteen, The River Cafe and a much-feted P. Franco pop-up. A resume of restaurants where menus sing with seasonality and provenance and the joys of a European jaunt; where the mantra is let-the-ingredient-shine and where there is heartfelt faith in the healing power of EVOO, Maldon and slightly natty wine.
Café Deco has all this too, but it is a little different. There is more of a rustic French accent; there is even less fuss. And there is a wonderful quietness to Anna’s food. Not in terms of flavour, which is perfectly pitched, but in the way it refuses to show off. Take the egg mayonnaise for example, a main stay of the menu: two precisely hard-boiled eggs under a thick layer of excellent mayonnaise, glossy and softly-peaked like meringue, with a pair of glistening anchovies crisscrossed on top. Or the pork crackling, puffed hugely and accompanied by nothing but a dab of apple sauce, just enough to temper the meaty crunch. In April, sitting on the terrace in a downpour, there was gnudi: a few small, perfectly formed globes of pasta neatly slicked in wild garlic pesto; lurid green outside, soft white ricotta inside. And a bowl of beef bourgignon that was nothing more or less than a great beef bourgignon: meat almost but not quite dissipated, deep savoury gravy glinting sweet with carrot and onion, a mound of thoroughly buttered mash.
There is something deliciously Parisian about sitting on Café Deco’s terrace, with a few glasses of crémant and a well-cultivated eye for people-watching. But for lunch I love the tranquillity inside, in the small, quiet white dining room with its muted pastel floor tiles and spartan chairs, where you can ponder the weekly-changing blackboard with a glass of cloudy iced orgeat cordial, like marzipan water. Perhaps there’ll be a niçoise salad, each of the ingredients – tuna, borlotti bean, tropea onion, hard-boiled egg – the very best iteration of itself. Maybe a hunk of pie – when we visited, Swiss chard and goats curd – the pastry crumbly and earthy with heritage flour, a few leaves dressed in buttermilk and dill on the side. To finish, before the season is out, a scoop of Alphonso mango sorbet, a neon sweet and sour firework shouting with lime and more enlivening than an espresso, but still with the clean, direct flavours of everything that came before. Because this is clean food. Not clean as in keto or sugar-free or meanly calorie-counted. Clean as in wholesome, clarified, essential. It is nourishing food. It is food that leaves you content and restored. It is, quite simply, very good food.
Book here. Meal for 2 approx. £75