If you asked me which of the many, many restaurant, cafe and bar openings I was most excited about last year, I wouldn’t hesitate with my two answers – Fields and 161 Kirk.
As I’ve grown more meh about proper restaurants and all they entail, I’ve felt myself increasingly drawn to places with more of a neighbourhood bent. Who doesn’t want to eat, drink, work, chill somewhere where they really do know your name? Both of these are South of the river, not entirely close enough to my own neighbourhood to claim my own but close enough in lieu of having anything better nearer. More importantly, they’re that alchemic balance of many small things that combine to create something that is far, far more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m less concerned about chasing that perfect coffee and the now dish, more interested in the collective ambience. Maybe it’s my age…
161 Kirk opened about a year ago to my absolute disbelief. I was sat, at the time, in North London with plans to move East for the evening. Nothing unusual there then. An email from a (trusted) friend declaring he was sat in a lovely new wine bar in Sydenham had a group of us racing back South unable to contain bewildered curiosity – or resist a boozy get together.
Turns out that was the first of many days and evenings spent at the cafe bar. It might be a couple of towns away from my own but I’m claiming it as *my* neighbourhood cafe, because it feels like it is. It’s the place I go when I need to get out of the house for a breather, to sit and work, take brunch and coffee, catch up with friends over a bottle or five of interesting natural wines or go for tinny reds and charcuterie boards for my Birthday and Christmas eve. It covers all bases (It’s also ridiculously reasonably priced!).
One of the owners is also part of ToastED, which I should mention here is also an excellent place, similar in vein, that I’ve had two absolutely cracking evenings at, with meals and wine to match. A dish of pork, astounding, and one of carrots that was bound with the most incredible puree that we surmised could only be that of brown butter anointed carrot – I dunked duck hearts in a supplementary dish of that carroty nirvana, that we’d demanded spontaneously, for the epitome of one forkful of heaven. Mangalitza charcuterie was the stuff of dreams.
Back at 161, and it’s much smaller and simpler but none the worse for it. Better in fact. The daily changing, succinct menu is influenced by cuisines from further shores, often a turkish influence, sometimes Jewish, Persian, as is quite often the case at the moment. A chocolate and olive oil cake is a recipe created by the other owner Belinda for her coeliac grandfather, she’s since become a friend. It’s touches like this that make up the warmth of the place. That as a package elevate it above and beyond the regular cafe or bar. Locals, at times, are challenging, sometimes obnoxious. But welcomed. They’re locals after all and this is a cafe for the community.
M1lk in Balham has always been worth travelling, even queuing for, as is inevitable if you attempt a weekend visit. An air of the quirky interspersed with the reckless and kitsch macabre. Music is boisterous, food is hearty and the atmosphere is frenetic and lively, thick with nostril teasing aromas. I struggle to leave without a takeout box of their pistachio and yuzu or brown butter and hazelnut cake or one of each. There’s a couple of pictues below of more recent visits, without trawling the archives of my phone too heavily, my favourite is generally the baked eggs, and coffee always served from twee crockery.
I’d known Fields was opening for a while (day job), had an inkling of the concept (press release) but was still unprepared for how stark a contrast it is from it’s sister M1lk. There’s so much to love about Fields even as it stands as a sort of work in progress, perhaps partly because of that. I adore, first, that it sits just behind a skate park, meaning there’s a steady stream of skaters ambling through the door, looking for refreshment – reminds me of my youth and my brother. I think I imagine the clatter and roll of wheels as skateboards hit the deck, a ghostly echo of memories. In reality little more than a shack, there’s a soft focus glow that infects my vision of it, a 70′s watercolour wash lens that I can’t shake from my eyes. Perhaps that’s my tragedy; I can’t resist finding melancholy romance in the ephemeral, the out of place and different.
Fields eased themselves into service gently. On my first visit they had just coffee and cake. I say *just* but nothing is just here…. Walking across the decking I’m reminded of beach huts and the faded, wind and rain ravaged beauty of British seaside towns. The juxtaposition then of a space age Spirit winking from the window hatch is nothing less than brilliant and induces a chuckle every time. The interior is soft serve perfection with a deliciously subversive twist – look closer at the retro salt shaker and is that himalayan pink salt to match the candy walls? Too right it is. It’s these touches that tickle me, like the set of flying ducks on the wall and the actual soft serve machine. Why yes, of course they have one! But nothing as trad as vanilla here; hay smoked with gingerbread crumb or matcha and white chocolate; a slushy machine is similarly, brilliantly perverted.
I hardly need to say that the brunches are genius incarnate. Bacon and poached eggs on sourdough would be lovely enough with regular hollandaise, infuse that sauce cleverly with siracha and espresso and it’s taken to another level. A fruit salad couldn’t be further from the classic, a dish that comprises burnt plums, walnuts, cream and shaved apple, a heartbreaking, breathtaking plate of winter whimsy served on diner basics.
Croque madame is just as perfect as a version as you could dream of, all molten cheese and smoked egg yolk. A side of wild ramsons comes pimped with lurid celery salt. House made crumpets, light and fluffy, perch on a small mound of smoked goats curd, dripping with honey they’re finished with faerie dust, flowers and honeycomb. Ok, I might be lying about the faerie dust but maybe not, there’s a touch of the fantastical about this place. Remember the show Eerie Indiana? Feels a bit like that. Where nothing is *quite* what it seems…..You just have to scratch a little below the surface.
Peat smoked larder cake is subtly smoky with a sugar cracked crust. Coffee, of course good, is from Workshop and Koppi. Wine is astonishing, from a tiny French natural producer and sold by the glass at retail price. See what I mean? These things are delivered in such a way as to not draw attention – almost with a nonchalant shrug in cheap tumblers. Magical.
It’s not gathered quite the following of M1lk yet, but I guarantee it won’t be long before the public catch on. I kind of hope they don’t to be honest. Just our little secret? Just try not to fall in love over those confectionary hues yeah? My heart aches a little just looking at them.
I understand they’re launching an evening service shortly in time for warmer months….