Whole Beast at the Montpelier, London: ‘Not subtle but huge fun’ – restaurant review

<span>Animal passions: the welcoming interior at Whole Beast at the Montpelier, south London.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Animal passions: the welcoming interior at Whole Beast at the Montpelier, south London.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Whole Beast at the Montpelier, 43 Choumert Road, London SE15 4AR (020 7635 9483). All dishes £3-£16, desserts £4-£6, wine from £25

Some menus read like the setlist for a Take That gig: a few ballads to kick things off, in the shape of cheery salads and dips, building towards some serious live fire grill, dancefloor fillers. Others are a bit more Elbow: a warm, comforting and life-affirming journey through the vagaries of love and loss; some French classics, say, or a few soothing pasta dishes followed by a perfectly made crème brûlée. Behold, the great Guy Garvey cracking through the lightly bitter carapace of life’s burnt sugar to get to the soft-set cream beneath. And then there’s the menu by Whole Beast, in permanent residency at the Montpelier, a boozer in Peckham. That’s a Slipknot gig. It’s packed full of cranial-shaking, jaw-rattling bangers from start to finish. I accept I’ve never been anywhere near a Slipknot gig. With this hair? And these feet? But the overwrought imagery stands. These are my analogies. If you don’t like them, I have others.

Whole Beast, a roving cooking project by Sam Bryant and his Polish-born partner, Alicja, describes itself as a “nose-to-tail, live fire concept”. Both grew up in rural areas and say they have “an eye on the past more than the future, using more primitive culinary techniques”. They also declare themselves to be “pyromaniac sommeliers, matching different woods to different animals”. It’s a lot, isn’t it? But it’s also huge fun. The resulting food is not subtle. They do not do understated. They do shouty look-at-me food. In the same way that salty bar nibbles encourage patrons to buy more drinks, these are dishes that go very well with a night at the bar.

And so here they are in a blocky redbrick corner pub, in what is now known, to many people’s profound irritation, as Peckham’s Bellenden Village. Recently, a screenwriter called David Lee Stokes posted to social media what he regarded as the best scene introduction he’d ever written. It read: “EXT. NANDO’S RESTAURANT – NIGHT. Establishing shot. You know what they look like. I’m not describing it to you.” I could only applaud. After a while, describing all this stuff really does get tiresome. Surely you know what a vaguely gentrified inner London pub looks like by now. No? Fair enough. It means there’s Murphy’s on tap, but they also do two-for-one negronis on Thursdays and the short wine list includes a serviceable chablis. There’s a saloon bar upfront and at the back, a wider, pot-planted space with booths and high-top tables. Food orders, from the short menu, are taken at the bar.

That starts with a pickled egg smothered in a salty, fermented bright red chilli sauce and resting in a puddle of Henderson’s, that dark, savoury, vinegary condiment from Sheffield that is in no way anything like Worcestershire sauce, and there will be nothing more said on the matter. It’s a delightful eye widener, a nod to pub life, and yes you can indeed fill my glass with more of that lovely chilled white. There are two dishes called tacos on the menu tonight. In the sense that the fillings rest upon soft, warm tortillas, the name fits, but they are so stacked, so very Devil’s Mountain, that rolling these up and eating them with your hands is an impossibility. Use a knife and fork.

One is piled high with a tangle of burnt leeks and a smoked garlic cream, under a hefty rubble of salty, fried garlic breadcrumbs; the other is heaped with crumbled Tamworth chorizo, stained green, presumably from a herb purée. There are ribbons of sweet pink pickled onions and more crumbs. Both are messy and bold. A big dollop of whipped cod’s roe comes with blocks of golden, oniony hash brown still hot from the deep fryer. While introducing one to the other, I muse on this perfect exercise in edible engineering: the way the slabs of crisp potato serve as a perfect platform for the fish-ripe cod’s roe.

We are required to have the cheeseburger, which is talked about in these parts in hushed tones. It has won awards, this burger, and I can see why. The crushed patty, made of aged meat that is just on the right side of worryingly funky, has been allowed to sear until the edges are crisp and lacy. In the middle it is softer and starting to merge with the bun above. But here’s the hilarious thing. It’s smothered in a creamy, vinegary, mayo-based sauce which, while perfect for the job, is also very familiar. It’s like meeting an old friend in an unexpected setting. What they are selling here is a Big Mac that’s been tutored by Henry Higgins so it can pass in polite society. It is the Eliza Doolittle of burgers, ready for its turn at Ascot. On a menu that reads like a Slipknot gig. Perhaps I’ve lost control of my imagery here.

Whole Beast doesn’t just do beasts. Try their deep-fried pie, stuffed with a mousse-like crush of butternut squash, under a blanket of grated Scamorza, a southern Italian cow’s milk cheese, alongside more of their fermented hot sauce. After the burger it feels like a witty savoury take on the McDonald’s apple pie. Have that with the “umami salad’” a descriptor that barely seems necessary given everything here slaps with umami. This one has a miso dressing and is weighed down by crispy onions and hefty gratings of parmesan. A theme is emerging here, isn’t it: the addition of savoury crumbs or shavings of glutamate-rich cheeses to press home the point. The skin-on chips are good.

Far less successful are smoked chicken wings swamped with what they say is a mustard barbecue sauce. It is a colour anyone who has ever been on baby-changing duty will recognise. It also recalls nothing other than the sauce which goes with gravadlax. Thinking about cured fish while attempting to eat unjointed chicken wings is not a good fit. Plus, the wings are described as smoked, but it’s in vain. You can’t taste anything under that bullying sauce. It’s the only misfire. We finish with an ice-cream sandwich made with thin miso cookies and a sweet Whole Beast-branded pot of snakebite ice-cream, presumably so called on account of the blackcurrant swirled through it.

The menu at the Montpelier will not comfort those looking for structure and certainty. If you crave a quiet dinner, this may not be for you. But if you fancy a few dishes with drinks that will punch you in the jaw repeatedly with killer riffs, get to Peckham.

News bites

A survey has found that less than 30% of hospitality businesses are currently compliant with new rules on tipping, which come into force in October. For example, 63% of employers currently take a portion of tip money from their employees, behaviour that will be outlawed under the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act 2023. Hospitality technology business Three Rocks surveyed 1,000 businesses in the sector, 83% of whom reported that it will cost them at least £12,000 a year to comply with the new rules. The report also found that nearly half of hospitality workers have no idea how tips are distributed by their employers.

Dishpatch, the meal-kit delivery company which launched in 2020 when restaurants were closed due to the pandemic, has been sold to Waitrose. Dishpatch offers high-end kits costing up to £50 a head and created by the likes of Angela Hartnett, Michel Roux Jr, José Pizarro and Atul Kochhar, alongside a wine offering. “While our immediate focus will be helping Dishpatch grow its core meal kit business,” said James Bailey, executive director for Waitrose, “we are also looking forward to working with the team to bring further new and exciting food experiences to Waitrose customers.” (dishpatch.co.uk).

Popular Leeds bistro the Swine That Dines, has launched a £25,000 fundraiser to enable them to move to a bigger site in the city centre. They currently have room for just 18 covers and want to grow that to 30, and expand the kitchen so it has room for more than just two chefs. Rewards for investment include meal vouchers, private dinner parties and cooking lessons with head chef Stu Myers. The fundraiser closes on 7 July. Find out more here.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on X @jayrayner1