Review: Upstairs, Brixton


Brixton’s bijoux masterpiece is exclusive but not excluding.


By Joe Short

It’s not often you find the culinary delights usually associated with Kensington and Chelsea south of the river.

In fact, you certainly don’t expect Brixton to rival the extravagance of those worldly establishments, even if the variety of food in the borough vastly outweighs its more affluent rivals.

So what happens when you mix the two: the South West London vibe of Brixton and Clapham with the culinary expertise of central?

You get Upstairs, which began life as a deteriorated, uninhabitable building in 2001 when Philippe Castaing and Stéphanie Mercier bought the premises with the intention of renovating it into flats. But soon Philippe realised the success of Opus, their ground-level café, was such that a restaurant was worth the investment.

There was absolutely nowhere to go in Brixton for a brilliant meal in a relaxed but bijoux style atmosphere and décor,” Philippe informed me.

“We wanted to create a very London space with a French touch, quirky and classy, exclusive but not excluding. A hidden gem in a busy thoroughfare, an escape from daily routine, somewhere you could be elsewhere.”

Brixton should be glad of their ‘members club without membership’, as Philippe puts it, for this Michelin-inspired restaurant boasts all the fineries of eating in a top city-centre establishment without the pretentions that come with it.

Crickety floorboards and a side-door entrance gives Upstairs the air of a speakeasy but after ascending the flight of steps you open onto a landing with a homely yet decidedly French décor.

The small open fireplace, compact dining space and glorious natural light serve a cosy atmosphere that encourages the diner to spend their leisurely relaxation time with a glass of wine in hand.

We were lucky enough to sample Upstairs’ tasting menu with matching wines, created in part by former Michael’s Nook chef Martyn Reynolds.

Martyn learned his trade in the Lake District before jetting off to Rome’s three-Michelin starred La Pergola. He moved back to London to work for William Drabble at the Aubergine restaurant in Chelsea and became head chef at Seven Park Place – and it is clear he’s brought plenty of knowledge with him to Upstairs.

“His culinary style is routed in the Anglo French and Italian ‘terroir’,” said Philippe.

“Martyn’s cooking is constantly evolving, gathering all the experiences of working with brilliant chefs for the last 14 years into his own exciting, yet subtle technique.”

Indeed, the chef has excelled with his tasting menu that delights the senses as much as it fuels conversation. Usually in restaurants you have defined points in the evening. You sit, talk, order, talk, eat, talk, leave. That 15 minutes or so before the meal is your catch-up time and then the focus turns to food.

With Upstairs, you’re afforded almost two hours to chat with friends and the food arrives almost as a stimulant to more conversation, rather than a stopper. We puzzled over the correct way to eat/drink our deliciously nutty pea soup before championing the lightly fried toast with foie gras.

With small, nibbly courses, conversation is allowed to enjoy a natural evolution without ever being interrupted. A seared, salted hake on fried broccoli took us through the white wines – each course comes with a fresh glass – before the crowning plate, venison with dark, bitter cabbage.

Venison is very apt for Upstairs. Like the restaurant, the meat is up-market, fun and immensely rich to sample. Yet it doesn’t boast that kitsch exclusivity that lobster and steak often carries. It is the pinnacle of rich meats without being pretentious as much as Upstairs is on the London restaurant scene.

Two deserts, one a deconstructed banoffee pie that confused textures to such an extent you struggled to eat it, and a coffee rounded off the luxurious evening. For £59 the tasting menu with matching wines isn’t cheap but it is downright more economical than a Kensington equivalent and much more exclusive.

For at the heart of the food is a determination to source locally, to such an extent that next month Philippe and Stephanie intend to start harvesting a crop from their vegetable patch out back.

“We believe we created a Michelin level restaurant without all the apparatus and stuffiness associated with fine dining,” concluded Philippe. “We don’t wear ties, do not have tablecloths yet can provide superb service and expert wine or cocktails advice. The food, intricate and demanding a lot of work, is not pretentious but allows ingredients to shine.”

It is small details such as these that makes the restaurant what it is, Brixton’s bijoux masterpiece.

Upstairs, Brixton SW2 5TN // 0207 733 8855

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