Chef Nicholas Balfe hasn't missed a beat at this DJ-inspired Peckham restaurant, where bistro-style food is in the mix with foraged and wild ingredients. Lauren Bowes pays a visit
Dance music and fine dining might not be the most obvious of bedfellows, but at Levan in London's Peckham, Nicholas Balfe has made it work. The 44-cover sister restaurant to Brixton's Salon spills out onto rowdy Blenheim Grove, with 12 seats outside to catch the eye of revellers making their way to a night out at cultural hub Bussey Building.
But its connection to music goes further than its location: the restaurant takes its name from legendary US DJ Larry Levan. Balfe explains: "It's about the ethos of counter-culturism, hedonism, indulgence. Larry Levan basically rewrote the rulebook of what dance music is about. He took the blueprint for disco and made it his own. I suppose that's what we had in mind with Levan; we want it to be a place people associate with great food, great wine and good music. A place to enjoy yourself; a place to let go a bit."
The relaxed vibe is reflected in the loose menu structure, with the evening menu divided into snacks and sharing. The weekly changing menu typically offers five snacks and between 10 and 12 sharing dishes, which are also divided into smaller and larger options.
"The idea is you could have a snack, starter and main, if you wanted to, but equally we prefer to push people towards a sharing format," says Balfe. There is also an option of the chef's menu, which is a selection of five sharing courses chosen by the kitchen (£41 per person).
Levan is almost equally focused on its wine, with an 80-strong list led by a dedication to Jura in France. Balfe explains: "When we were thinking about opening Levan, it felt like Jura as a region summed up everything we wanted our wine list to be. It's one of the less commercial regions; there aren't any big houses there and it's a bit more artisanal. That sort of profile, from savoury, saline whites to lighter, more elegant reds, fits with where our menu is."
One dish that Balfe feels exemplifies Levan's style is heritage tomatoes, strawberry umeboshi, fig leaf and nasturtium (£10.50). Featuring bull's heart tomatoes from Puglia, vesuvio tomatoes from Sicily and green tigerskin tomatoes and yellow plum tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, each variety is chosen to demonstrate a different flavour profile, with some more acidic, some sweeter and some more watery. The tomatoes are marinated à la minute with some raw garlic, sherry vinegar and finely chopped thyme before being dressed in strawberry umeboshi. Instead of the underripe plums used in the traditional Japanese technique, Balfe is making the most of the UK's strawberry season, brining the fruits in salt, rice wine vinegar and water for two weeks. Liquid is siphoned off to create a granita for an oyster dish, with the remainder blended into a purée which is used to dress the tomatoes. The dish is finished with fig leaf oil and spicy nasturtium leaves and flowers.
Balfe says: "That's an example of how we use ingredients: some foraged, some wild, some British, some European, some Asian, as well as something that's actually really simple – just cutting up some tomatoes and putting some garlic on them. The end result is sharp, sweet, acidic, vegetal, bright, fragrant, spicy."
On the opposite end of the scale, the somewhat heavier and much less season-dependent snack of Comté fries (£6.50) has been on the menu since the beginning. The name is somewhat deceiving as no potato features, with Balfe admitting the dish is, in essence, a traditional Provençal panisse. It is created from chickpea batter, enriched with butter, 18-month aged Comté, caramelised shallots, garlic and thyme, pressed and deep-fried, served alongside saffron aïoli and topped with more grated Comté.
A selection of six desserts are on offer, with the tarte tatin and dark chocolate mousse having been on the menu since opening. The current tarte (£8.50) features nectarines from Provence, which are cooked to order in salted caramel and layered into puff pastry with more caramel before being finished with lemon thyme and raw milk Normandy crème fraîche.
"Paris is a big inspiration," explains Balfe. "We like the idea of ‘bistronomy' – cherrypicking the best ideas from around the world, underpinning them with great, classic cooking, and serving it in a relaxed environment."
From the menu
- Mushroom tempura, sesame vinaigrette £6.50
- Salt cod beignets, nori £6.50
- Smoked mackerel pâté, pickled cucumber £7.50
- Sweetbreads, radish, sorrel, soy caramel £12.50
- Glazed aubergine, fermented chilli, almond cream £12.50
- Girolle, pea and ricotta tortelli £15.50
- Potato, wild mushroom and Vacherin pie £14.50
- Pork chop, gooseberry, bronze fennel, wholegrain mustard £18.50
- Dark chocolate mousse, cherry sorbet £8.50
- Apricot sorbet, lemon thyme, olive oil £6.50
12-16 Blenheim Grove, Peckham London SE15 4QL www.levanlondon.co.uk
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