Juliet Shield

Restaurant Consultant

Zucca (and Gilbert and George)

It is well nigh impossible to get a table at Zucca on a Saturday night without booking many weeks in advance. But the latest branch of Jay Jopling’s White Cube empire gives a reason for visiting Bermondsey Street late afternoon, and then scooping up a less popular early sitting.

First things first. Gilbert and George are in fine fettle till May in a large exhibition spanning the three White Cubes. Over 6 years the artists stole nearly 4000 newspaper sellers’ posters, and made 292 works cataloguing the daily drama of London life. The large white Gallery walls are perfect for the monochrome displays with red highlights, and their films are compelling too.

After this artistic nourishment, it was straight into Zucca at 6 pm, a few doors up. It is a small restaurant, maybe 40-50 seats, dominated by the open kitchen which spans most of the length, from which the smells of serious cooking waft towards the entrance. Sam Harris, whose career has included 6 months at the River Cafe, first opened the Maltings Cafe close by in Tower Bridge Road, to cut his teeth, before opening this grown up venture in 2010.

This is serious Italian cooking, as far as Italian cooking ever is, and reminds us of the use of good vinegar. But not at the expense of good olive oil. The cubes of foccacia and other finely cut breads to dip into the delicious oil were almost a good enough reason on their own to be there. Quality and simplicity of all ingredients is the key. How many other restaurants claims to have this as their priority, but actually fail to deliver it? My daughter exclaimed at the first mouthful of the burrata with courgettes and wilted zingy greens, that it was like mozzarella but “just amazing”. It was. I also ate the freshest cod with its attendant creaminess, set on a perfectly balanced pink caponata. The tuna choices were the same: completely fresh and perfectly cooked. There were no pepper mills on the tables, none offered and none needed. For this quality the prices are reasonable. Most main courses are under £15 and the starters under £5. But the bill can get much larger if you explore their well researched and serious wine list. On this occasion, three of the party were post-Christmas alcohol-free till 1 April. But the Valpolicella was excellent.

The only missed trick I logged was the lack of a printed dessert menu. Perhaps I’m odd, but I like to see have the measure of the whole offering, before I decide on any of it. Different versions of the items were recited from memory by the waiting staff at the beginning and then after the main course, which didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. The point about desserts is they should be tempting, and even if you’ve had enough, you might just fit one in if it looks delicious enough on paper. In the event, we finished the meal with just coffee and teas.

When the bill came, refreshingly, service was not added, and no empty line on the credit card slip either. I say, all credit to Sam for this brave move, which other restaurants would do well to follow. Leaving a cash tip, and knowing that it will go directly to staff encourages generosity, especially when the service has been very good, as it was here.

This is a restaurant where the tastes of the food stay in your memory. If it was on my local patch, I’d be a regular. But in any event I’ll be back when a new exhibition opens at the White Cube in May.

184 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ
Tel: 020 7378 6809

White Cube Gallery
144-152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ
Open Tues – Sat 10-6
Sun 12-6
Free admission