The Easter weekend began in style with an impromptu dinner at J Sheekey: few places in the capital are better equipped to cope when a greedy oyster lover and his girlfriend – a vegetarian who confesses her favourite colour is "shiny" – decide to go all impromptu. And it wound down gently but wonderfully with lunch (and more oysters) yesterday in Franklins, where the menu was thick with St John DNA (I went for the rolled spleen but not the squirrel, since you ask). In between there was take-away curry, a very pleasant surprise, Easter bunny rarebits, an egg hunt, asparagus, Jersey Royals and the first barbecue of the year. Not such a bad life...
The surprise was a meal at Le Querce, an Italian restaurant at the far end of Brockley Road. Brockley is long on fried chicken shops (the latest – Lithu's Chicken and Pizza – opened recently at the end of my road, but don't expect a review any time soon) but rather short on anything you might call a serious restaurant. The one shining exception has always been the very excellent Babur, also so far down the Brockley Road it's nudging into Forest Hill, which Harden's recently named best inexpensive restaurant in London but has so far been mysteriously untroubled by your local reviewer. According to Nick at the estimable Brockley Central, though, Le Querce can also lay claim to "proper restaurant" status so I put in a call on Good Friday, got a closed message on the answerphone but was rewarded a couple of minutes later when they 1471'ed me and offered us what appeared to have been the last table in the house.
If – like me – you tend to make dining decisions based on menus and first impressions, you probably wouldn't give Le Querce a second glance. It's nondescript exterior does little to mark it out from an unlovely stretch of road and the menu could be culled from any standard Italian you care to choose. Sitting down at pale-wood furniture to quirky crockery, a huge and frankly bizarre sprouting onion and garish offerings on the wall that speak worryingly of "local artist" and you're hardly filled with confidence about the feast to come. Happily, though, this is one of the rare occasions were first impressions are misleading and perseverance is comprehensively rewarded.
The clues that we were somewhere other than "standard" came thick and fast once we'd caught the eye of the manager, who I seem to remember is the chef's brother: it's palpably a family affair at Le Querce with at least three generations working front of house. He quickly rattled off a list of specials that included bresaola cured on the premises, lots of home-made pasta and an impressive selection of fresh fish. It was made abundantly clear to us that the kitchen at Le Querce thrives on seeking out the freshest and finest ingredients and treating them simply, sympathetically and with some style. The bresaola was a case in point: dense and earthy, beautifully textured and offset perfectly by some cracking Parmesan. One mouthful of this and I immediately dismissed any misgivings I'd had about lamely ordering a rocket and P salad as a side-dish later in the meal.
Antonia opted to start with the bread, also freshly baked and also well received, despite the olive oil rather randomly being charged for separately. Her main of ravioli was polished off in short order (in far less time than we'd spent waiting for it) and was pronounced some of the best pasta she could remember. This is high praise from someone who often has to go for a Hobson's Choice pasta option in places that don't really understand how to make it.
My main was lovely. Billed as simply liver and caramelised onions, the menu seriously undersold this variation on a classic. Four artfully arranged slivers of perfectly pink organ studded with silky sweet baby onions that exploded dangerously when pronged. An unadvertised stack of spinach worked much better than I expected and crispy sage leaves added just enough texture to break things up nicely.
Last but not least came the ice cream. From a dizzying list on the menu plus about a dozen more they'd whipped up for kicks that day we chose a scoop of chilli ice cream, a second of banana, cardamon and ginger and a cooling rose petal sorbet. Neither of us is any kind of ice cream buff so it's hard to compare with other gelato specialists but this was a blinding combination. The chilli was fierce and cool at the same time, the banana combo so much more than the sum of its parts and the sorbet like some kind of Turkish Delight lollipop. But in a good way.
I confess I'd viewed the ice cream selection in much the same sceptical way as I had the building and the rest of the menu. But by the end of the meal, helped along no doubt by a couple of shots of the strange myrtle spirit that was doing the rounds by that point, everything began to make sense: I guess even local art on the wall can be forgiven in an area that's proud of its arty leanings. Not sure about the onion, though: perhaps they're fattening it up for next week's mysterious "garlic or onion" ice cream. I might just go back to find out.
Le Querce, 66-68 Brockley Rise, London 020 8690 3761