‘Hello Gaby, I wasn’t expecting you”.
Nobody ever recognises me, I pass through life invisibly.
I’m sure if I was a criminal, and they tried to do an Identikit, they’d quickly give up and I’d be allowed to continue on my bloody spree.
But I WAS spotted here. Thankfully the owner, Campbell Mickel, only made it obvious at the end of the meal, which saved on cringe.
Still, we had a nice chat. He said he’d had two heart attacks, which he wasn’t expected to recover from, just over a year ago and it motivated him to give up private catering.
His Mediterranean-inspired restaurant is in the former premises of Goya23, and next door to the baked potato shop, which wafts its spuddy goodness down the street.
They serve small plates – in the Philippines, a merienda is a light meal – crafted by resident chef Robbie Probert, formerly of 21212.
Before I’d got to know him, Campbell said to order three or four of the savoury dishes each, so we shared seven.
The menu has Tolkien-esque sections. From “Rivers and Seas”, we chose the octopus (£8), salted Atlantic cod (£8.50) and the velvet crab (£8). All three were as aesthetically appealing as Cindy, Naomi and Kate on a Versace catwalk.
The leggiest one had a cross-section of meaty pink tentacle, in a shiny pool of grass green basil soup, with islands of pistachio purée and bits of micro herb. I suppose it was an out-there sort of combination – seafood and nuts – but they made it work.
Same for the velvet crab. On a pandan leaf paddleboard, there was a pile of shredded meat, with lovage mousse on top and struts of crisp red apple, like phosphorus matches. It came on a charcoal-coloured plate, like a palette for purées of lettuce and seafood. The dollop of soft cod came in a clear plunge pool of tomato and shallot consommé, with samphire floating in the mix.
There were four buttons of baby courgette on the side of the dish, looking a bit lost, so I flicked them in. They needn’t really have been there, but I suppose this kind of cooking is like when Simon Cowell tells contestants to give it 110 per cent on The X Factor. Of course, there isn’t such a thing, but if there was, this lot would be delivering, even though nobody would miss one or two elements.
From “Gardens and Fields”, the winner was probably the Portuguese pork belly (£7.80), which looked like a champion milliner’s creation, with a plume of feathery herbs, crispy shallots, parsley and borage flowers on top of the meaty chunk. We might have preferred the red wine jus to be more than just a pretty scrape along the bottom of the dish. Still, lovely.
The baby pears with baked Brie (£6.90) was a particularly small dish, like the end of something, rather than the whole shebang. We treasured each mouthful, with a “port and honey fluid gel” that added to the sticky sweetness.
We loved the lush prosciutto wrapped chicken saltimbocca (£7.90), but weren’t totally taken with the sweet red pepper foam draped across its shoulders, as from a fire extinguisher. And if only we could work out what we were supposed to do with the stocky side dish of “wine and chicken jus”. When a few of the contestants on Come Dine With Me have done it, you know that a dish served in a pretend plant pot trope is a bit hackneyed.
Merienda’s take consists of a coriander-infused hummus (£6.50) topped with a black olive and almond soil, with radishes and a baby carrot stump “growing” out, Mr McGregor’s Garden-style. If we were on that guilty pleasure of a telly programme, it’d be a 10.
We loved the simple (ish, for this place) dessert of meringue (£4.50) with strips of mango and raspberries, drenched in a blood-red coulis, but the tiramisu (£4.50) was a little too cream heavy.
Anyway, this place is eccentric, contemporary yet old-fashioned, but not self-consciously trendy.
I hope people see the menu in the window and think, “Hold that baked potato with cheese, I’m going in.”