From the book “Bankside”
Delfina Studio Café
50 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UD
Tel: 020 7357 0244
Open daily for lunch, Friday dinner
The Romans beat leather on Bermondsey Street and it was not that long ago that the last tannery, specializing in exotic hides such as ostrich and boa constrictor, moved out of the area. But when entrepreneur Digby Squires bought the former chocolate factory that houses Delfina Studio Café in 1994, the neighborhood was little more than a run-down assortment of derelict warehouses and workshops. However, the vast open spaces and hive of outbuildings that once churned out sugar-plum chocolate and popping candy were the perfect home for his charity, the Delfina Studio Trust, an organization that helps young visual artists.
Today its three gallery spaces and 35 studios contribute to a thriving heritage conservation area that has attracted a vibrant mix of small, craft-based businesses, restaurants and boutiques.
Not only are the resident artists given the chance to develop their work without commercial pressure, they are also lucky enough to be able to have a permanent table reserved for them in the sleek Delfina Studio Café, which has evolved considerably since its days as an in-house canteen.
The restaurant, with its airy, open-plan space, scrubbed floor and whitewashed walls, is like a vast blank canvas. In that way it is the perfect match for head chef Maria Elia who brings to the kitchen a rich palette of experience and influences. This is someone who has worked on a luxury private yacht, sourcing produce at markets and fish on the docks of Greece, Turkey and Cuba. Headhunted to be chef of a country club in Dorset, she was asked on her first day to design a kitchen in a squash court.
In Phoenix, Arizona she learned the cooking of the deep south and how to make Tortilla soup. She revitalized the menu at a health spa near Montepulciano in Italy and is still so passionate about her craft that she spends her holidays on cookery courses in India and Thailand, or in the kitchens of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Her conventional apprenticeship includes spells at London’s Coast restaurant and at Ferran Adrià’s renowned El Bulli near Barcelona, recently voted the best restaurant in the world.
The result, she insists, is not “fusion”, rather using the best ingredients in less obvious ways. This might translate as a starter of pan-fried squid with zhoug-dressed butternut squash and a main course of Miso-marinated perch with pickled cabbage and beansprout salad; or roast rabbit with artichoke skordalia, shaved fennel and crispy potatoes. “Taste, texture and presentation” is Elia’s mantra and there is clearly no rule-book. “Why does a meringue have to be in the shape of a nest? Why not a square or a triangle?” she asks.
Such adventurism is in safe hands, however, as the dishes, while always inventive, are also delicious. The menu changes every three weeks and there is always a special of the day as well as a staple dish of Australian fish. This always popular choice came about as the result of a good relationship with an Australian seafood supplier – it is also a deliberate attempt to avoid using species of fish that are suffering depleted stocks. Elia sees it as a chef’s duty to “give those fish a break” and allow restocking for future generations.
So, one might find Barramundi on the menu, or Dhufish, Albacore, Spangled Emperor, Leather Jacket or Sweet Lips. Although the names may be unfamiliar, albeit colorful, all the fish are meaty and dense and served simply chargrilled with a big wedge of lemon and some organic leaves.
The atmosphere at Delfina is relaxed and the décor soothing: touches of pale green and navy blue accent the white backdrop and there is space to breathe. All reasons the restaurant attracts a mélange of artistic types and local crafts people, as well as staff from the nearby Financial Times and City workers. Some simply drop in for coffee and to view the studio’s permanent exhibition, which is owner Digby’s Squire’s personal collection built up over many years.
And there is always the permanent table of resident artists for added color. What is certain is that the artists that have moved on from Bermondsey Street – and the list comprises a stellar collection of Turner Prize nominees including Keith Tyson, Mark Wallinger and the Wilson Twins – will be missing those lunches.