Unexpected treat in the heart of Camden Town’s madness

Joseph Connolly battles through the chaos of Camden Town to find a gem of a restaurant

Inverness Market on a Saturday was a bit of a draw: fresh fruit and veg, rotten fruit and veg, cameras and watches of dubious origin, books and magazines of dubious legality, and several stalls laden with mechanical detritus such as the innards of toasters, bits of locks, bicycle bells and eviscerated clocks – these always very carefully picked over by spooky and unsmiling men in gaberdine raincoats, all wearing spectacles which had probably been bought on a similar stall as a job lot along with their dentures. My mother and I would quite bravely go there at Christmas, in search of a very cheap tree. These were always soaked and trussed up and if you politely asked the stallholder to untie one, the better to assess its shape, he would hack out through his roll-up words you never heard in the Bible, and then threaten to shove said bleeding Christmas tree where the sun don’t shine, cock. Which was nice.

I’d forgotten all about the market until just the other day, when I found myself back there with my wife. There’s an extraordinary collection of shops and eating places, not to say the Mecca Bingo Hall (and I’m amazed that the proprietors escape being cursed as infidel dogs prior to suffering the place being blown to kingdom come). There’s Mega City Comics (American stuff) and Out On The Floor, packed with old and collectable LPs. A Spanish tapas place offers – every Monday, rather oddly – live flamenco dancing (and still I struggle to imagine the dead sort). The stalls themselves are only rather diluted versions of the fabulous cluster of shops around the corner where the currently hot togs seem to range between vampire and Sergeant Pepper, by way of Satan, Minnie Mouse and Mad Men. The other thing that Inverness Market has got is H�ch� – a reputedly superior hamburger joint, and that’s where we were headed for lunch. It’s just next to a tattoo and piercing parlour whose neighbour in turn is a pub called The Good Mixer: well, Camden Town has always been full of people who are good at mixing (in any sense you like).

So at 12.45 we went into H�ch� and the waitress said that they wouldn’t be open for another quarter of an hour. I wondered aloud why this should be so – and with remarkable candour, she told me: “There’s been a bit of a disaster in the kitchen”. Mmm …it’s not really what you want to hear, is it? The imagination first runs riot, and then to Fawlty Towers. Though like gullible fools with an irrepressible death wish, 15 minutes later we wandered back. The door was now locked, a notice in the window saying that they would be open at 1.30 … or alternatively, I thought, never ever again: who knew? Either way, they’d made a right bloody hache of my lunch plans. And it was raining now, so we shimmied around the corner into Jamestown Road – and lo, a strange and green seemingly undulating building looking as if it had been constructed by a post-modern visionary under the influence of Mescalin from a collection of elliptical aquaria. Half of it is Wagamama (no thanks) the other chunk housing The Camden Brasserie. I may or may not have been here before, but certainly I was aware of its good standing – so in we nipped.

A smiling welcome from the chap on the door was a decent beginning – and I liked the room immediately: high ceilinged and generous, with large and well-spaced tables set with taupe linen cloths and napkins. One great wall of trompe l’oeil bookshelves betrayed the casually upmarket and arty intentions of this very well run Camden institution (it’s been in the area in various sites and guises since 1983). Yellow drum shades on the pendants – and a row of bright red ones over the jazzy-looking (in a good way) bar at the entrance. The chairs are a comfortable combination of curved rosewood backs and red leather seats, and there is also a scattering of Thonet bentwood. The background music was first rate in that it was virtually inaudible.

We shared a starter of four scallops – maybe a little over-seared but still juicy, on a good white bean puree with smoky bacony bits and endive that was decidedly too vinegary. The menu is full of things you actually want to eat – and although the steaks, and in particular the frites, are locally legendary, we each went for one of the two ‘oven’ options – a confit of Barbary duck leg with sauteed greens, new potatoes and tangerine salsa (which sounded zippy) and for me, braised lamb shank with mash and seasonal vegetables. These turned out to be very good carrots, green beans and long stringy slices of courgette. The great hunk of shank, in all its greedy glory, came in a big white porcelain trencherman’s trough, and the deep glazed gravy was a delight in itself: a very ably cooked dish, this – as was the confit. Here was much more than just the leg, with an intensely ducky flavour and just the right amount of gaminess and fat (to give it a bit of squish). With the sauteed greens, there was a sort of a pak choi thing going on, and this married well with the tang of salsa – which proved to be zippy indeed.

Obviously after a lamb shank, there is no room at all for pudding – so I swiftly ordered fresh strawberries (as good as you ever now can get – not a patch on the old days, etc etc) with vanilla cream, which might well have done with an extra slug of vanilla in it. My wife’s black and white chocolate mousse (actually brown and cream, as they always are) vanished in the bat of an eyelid – I didn’t even get a taste, though it’s safe to say she enjoyed it, if all the lip-smacking was anything to go by. In short, a damn good lunch in a restaurant I had no intention of visiting: in life, such things are often the way. The service too was very proficient – a smiling young man and an equally pleasant young woman who, when the phone rang, actually ran to answer it …! And with a bottle of Budvar beer and a large glass of Montepulciano, the bill came to a pleasing �68. Forty years ago, of course – for that sort of money you would have expected them to be chucking in the freehold.