Battersea: principally famous for a powerless power station, a dogs'-- orphanage, and as the last resting place of Benedict Arnold, the archetype of treachery, who (through peak pride, debt and having one leg 2in shorter than the other) changed sides from the Americans to the British during the War of Independence. He was one of the very first men to take the brand-new oath of allegiance to the United States, and therefore the very first one to break it. He failed to hand over West Point to the Crown, being undone by a sharp-eyed militia man called Isaac Van Wart, whose name I donâ--t think we hear enough of. Arnold died after developing chronic gout in the longer leg. Battersea should be called Benedict; Arnold is its patron saint. It has been trying to defect for decades â-- instead of over the Hudson, across the Thames.
Battersea is constantly in secret negotiations to leave its home for delinquent dogs and lavatorial park, and Quisling estate agents now refer to it as south Chelsea or, because there are so many French about, Beignet-sur-la-mer, which at least is funny. Battersea wants to be somewhere else: letter boxes here have signs saying â--no junk mail, we donâ--t really live here, itâ--s just a temporary thingâ--. Battersea is your rebound home, the one you live with after you break up from your first marital home in Fulham. Undistinguished and unlovable, itâ--s the nearly place that looks out from its mansard roof extension, and sees the magic city over the water, all lit up, and thinks, â--Un jour, un jourâ--.
But for all its transient, doggy-dull, nowheres-ville, Battersea did have one brief moment when it was a destination rather than a Hooray refugee camp. Back in the dawn of the culinary renaissance, when plating food in the kitchen seemed outrÃ©, and there was synchronous cloche work, and everything tasted of pink peppercorns and raspberry vinegar (does raspberry vinegar still exist?), when appetites were young and all food writers were plummy, ancient, remittance men in cravats with jus-stained crotches, talking about very agreeable little daubes and pootling down to Aix (actually that sounds depressingly like me), when the recipe section of the paper appeared once a month and was replete with wholesome things to do with leftover mince, and the way to turn your bacon-and-egg flan into a dinner party was to call it quiche Lorraine and decorate it with zigzag-cut tomatoes, well, back then, Queenstown Road was the little caravanserai of new foodism.
This is where the whole damn, ridiculous, fondant fancy of reborn Brit gastronomy, which has ended up as Great British Bake Off and pomegranate toothpaste, kicked off. In a little parade of shops, the furious and deeply inhospitable Nico Ladenis had his most important restaurant, Chez Nico, and Christian Delteil had Lâ--Arlequin. Down the road, Marco was throwing grinning Sloanes out of Harveyâ--s and making spaghetti with oysters and caviar and feeding it to the Blonde up against the wall with his fingers.
I remember going to Lâ--Arlequin with my mate, Chris Chown, who had thrown away his accountant suit to be part of this new foodie thing: it was simple, clear, nouvelle French food made without pomp or ponce. Theyâ--re all gone now: Marco no longer cooks, Nico lives quietly in the south of France, and last year the Caterer reported that Christian Delteil had died; in fact, heâ--d just opened a guest house on the route to Santiago de Compostela.
Queenstown Road has reverted to being a parade of shops waiting to move to Covent Garden, but you have little idea how much you owe it, and why should you? There ought to be a plaque here, or at least a cairn of marrow bones. Instead, in place of Lâ--Arlequin thereâ--s Dalila, a Lebanese restaurant named after a woman who cut menâ--s hair off.
Lebanese food is the Benedict Battersea of the culinary world, a cuisine that wants to be somewhere else. Itâ--s the best advertisement for being invaded, or at least sleeping with as many foreigners as possible. The simple but varied Lebanese menu comes thanks to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Arabs, the Ottomans and the French, but what the Lebanese really invented was public food in the Middle East. It is the harbinger of the way most of us eat now. Communal shared dishes based on vegetables and pulses with additions of meat and fish, light with vivid flavours of garlic, chilli, lemon, mint, coriander and parsley, and lots of olive oil (thatâ--s the contemporary flavour-favourite colour chart), and a mix of carbohydrates â-- pulses, seeds, rice and flatbread â-- and itâ--s relatively cheap.
Lebanese, or Levant, food is the blamelessly happy, good-for-you community dinner. As you walk into Dalila, it looks like a restaurant that has already left the room: a random mixture of design ingredients, a bit of fussy European furniture and Oxfam kitsch paintings. Itâ--s not pretty and itâ--s not coherent and itâ--s certainly not clever. The best you can say of it is it keeps the rain off the food.
The Blonde and I took Sarah and Jonny Standing; Jonnyâ--s just back from his triumph in Amadeus at Chichester, and his 80th birthday.
The menu is pretty much your standard, brain-numbing Pelmanism of too much thatâ--s too similar, with the comedy addition of a prawn cocktail. I expect, like most people, we order from the menu of memory: hummus, fattoush, labneh. The good thing about Lebanese food is that the cold mezze always go together to make a moreish and licentious orgy on the plate: everything gets naked and jiggy with the hummus. The main course of grilled meats was spectacular: kafta meshwi (minced lamb with onion and parsley) and chicken flavoured with a sunny panache.
There wasnâ--t much here that will surprise you, but it will all please: the quality of ingredients and the care of preparation are far more accurate and elegant than you would normally expect to find. This is a very good Lebanese restaurant, as good as youâ--ll find in London, or indeed, west of the Bosphorus. The baklava was memorable and the service charming, all of which may not be a reason to go to Battersea, but it must be a solace and compensation if youâ--re already there, waiting to smuggle yourself onto an Ocado van and make it across Chelsea Bridge.