22, Norfolk Row, S1 2PA. Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm; Sunday 10am - 4pm. www.marmadukescafedeli.co.uk/food/ 0114 2767462
Deep-fried Brussels sprouts?
Who could possibly resist? Not me.
Not in a cute little café in a beautiful city-centre spot, opposite the sunlit stained-glass saints of the Roman Catholic cathedral and all framed by a spectacular winter-blue sky.
What could possibly go wrong? Actually, nothing went wrong, far from it.
Marmadukes on Norfolk Row is the kind of place you might see in a side street in Bath or Cambridge.
Overlooked by St Marie’s it’s small and neat,immediately comforting and obviously a place with a lot of thought put into its design and décor. It has a style of its own. Or rather several styles borrowed from elsewhere and made its own.
Eclectic I think they call it. Influences and artefacts suggest a junior school, old farm buildings and a builder’s yard and it all comes together with a wink and a generous helping of respectability. It works.
There are one-quart milk bottles with 1950s-style logos from Evans Dairy in Syracuse, New York, used as water carafes, school dinners type glasses, up-turned colanders for lampshades, blue and white enamel plates and bowls. Shabby-chic is often a euphemism for old tat and any place so cutely themed runs the risk of being slightly twee but Marmadukes pulls it off nicely.
Of course none of this would matter a second-hand hoot if the food wasn’t up to scratch. But it is, beautifully and daringly so.
I’m new at this game but like most people I’ve been eating for a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen deep fried Brussels sprouts on a menu anywhere. Sauted with bacon - yes, roasted - yes, boiled to death - certainly, deep fried - no.
So of course we had to try those. Reminded me of a deep fried pizza tried in a chip shop in Kilmarnock in the mid-1970s – I can still see the bloke dropping it into the fryer and my jaw dropping with it as he did.
It actually tasted fine - though liquid refreshment had been taken prior to sampling.
Anyway the shock of the incongruously deep-fried hit me again but in all sobriety I can say that this time the result was absolutely delicious.
The outer layers of the halved sprouts were crisp and golden and the insides had their usual earthy, gutsy essence and retained enough crunch to remind the eater that they were once a living thing. Lovely.
And the novelty didn’t end there.
The Hot Winter Salad has deep fried cauliflower, roasted fennel, shaved apple, chestnuts, shallot, cep mushrooms and apple sourdough bread. It also has a sprinkling of fried sage leaves, fresh mint and dill. The generous handful of pomegranate seeds was also an inspired touch.
It looked a treat as it was presented, one of those plates where you’re not sure where to start.
So I did the decent thing and started with the chips. If in doubt…
They call them chunky chips in a basket and, with skins left on, very good they are too. Plenty of crunchy edges and corners, and they go nicely with the on-holiday-in-Belgium-style mayonnaise dip.
The Brussels sprouts, as reported, were excellent.
As was practically everything else.
Especially the bread. A doorstep of grilled or fried sourdough with chunks of apple embedded. First class.
My wife chose the club sandwich which came on grilled white bread which was also substantial and beautifully textured, with chunks of moist chicken breast and some properly flavoursome bacon with a genuine smokiness, wethinks.
That came with a salad of mixed green leaves and those nicely bitter-sweet pomegranate seeds again.
For dessert we tried two cakes and one coffee.
I had the chocolate tiffin, a huge belt of white-chocolatey, biscuity sugarness that was very sweet and with some nice crunchy aspects to go with the smooth topping.
My wife had the chocolate brownie which though not having that ultra-gooey middle loved by many, did have a terrifically authentic hit of real chocolate and not too sweet. Excellent.
Both were complemented by a short white coffee called a Cortado.
They specialise in coffees and teas at Marmadukes with several exotic blends and roasts on their specials blackboard.
From a nation where you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee 20 years ago we are now gourmets and experts. The Cortado – a double espresso with foamed milk in a four-ounce glass – was a delight. The nutty bitterness of the coffee balanced by the sweet, soft, textured milk.
The good news for Marmaduke’s lovers, and I suspect there are a lot of them, including us, is that the place is expanding.
Within the next few weeks they will be opening two new dining rooms upstairs.
Sprouting up, you might say.
With two lunches, a side of chips, two cakes and one coffee our lunch bill came to £27.10.
Star ratings out of five: