“Balham, Gateway to the South,” Peter Sellers once joked about the South London suburb. Now, however, the area has had something of a change in fortunes, and whilst perhaps not exactly “Gateway to the South” it is attracting trendy new bars and restaurants to cater for the Clapham overspill.
Salamander is the new kid on the (admittedly still grotty) block. There’s the now ubiquitous blond wood table and chairs, stripped flooring and wood fired oven. But Salamander pulls it off and the place looks stylish.
There’s also a sunny terrace where you can sit and drink in the petrol fumes – still, any restaurant that has an outside space in London seems to be welcomed with open arms. We bagged such a table when we visited on a warm Friday evening and, if you ignore the kebab shop and the buses roaring past, you could be in the Med. Well, almost.
The waitress was charm itself as we grilled her on whether their raspberry beer would match our old favourite and she quickly dispatched our starters (from £1.75 to £3.75), as requested, while we chose main courses. Marinated anchovies were plump and the mozzarella salad generous and fresh.
The menu is short but sweet and based around the wood oven. There are several pizzas, from £4.95 to £10.95, plus a couple of meat and fish specials.
My dining companion is worse than a Neapolitan mother-in-law if his pizza isn’t just so – mercifully it came with a thin crispy base but the ‘Spaniard’ (Chorizo, egg, charred peppers) was too much topping for a pizza purist.
I’d plumped for whole sea bream – a bargain at £10 – which was perfectly cooked. I did find the baked potato a curious accompaniment, more curious still that it was offered three ways – olive oil, sour cream or butter. Getting their money’s-worth out of that wood-fired oven, perhaps?
A bottle of rose (£13) was perfect to wash it down on a summer’s evening – and we didn’t even have to beg for a chiller as you so often have to.
We were too full for puddings – besides, a crowd from the nearby Duke of Devonshire was eyeing up our table – so we headed back onto the High Road. This is bargain food, well-cooked and in convivial surroundings. Balham may yet have the last laugh on Peter Sellers.