I can’t specifically remember the first time I went to The O2 (though there is a dim, gently mortifying memory of bouncing around in too-tight jeans while watching Kings of Leon) but I’m going to confidently guess that no one really does. The area around the former Millennium Dome is, for most of us, not a place that dwells in the memory; it is a functional, temporary holding zone, where soothing chain restaurants rule and the rush for the Tube after a gig can seem like a slightly less dignified version of the scramble towards the lifeboats in Titanic.
Yes, there is Craft and the Now Gallery. But it is not, historically, somewhere people care to linger unnecessarily; precisely because it doesn’t need to be. However, stoked by the residential developments springing up here, the new attractions keep coming. Last year, the Icon Outlet mini-mall, a sort of Boohoo Set Bicester Village, opened. This summer, The Tide — a sculpture trail that brags, with a straight-face, that it is ‘London’s first elevated riverside linear park’ — was unveiled.
And now, perhaps most significantly, here is Mama Fuego: an Australian-meets-South American all-day operation that promises a bakery, multiple bars and about half a dozen other things scattered across a many-roomed, 1970s-influenced space. Money has clearly been spent (there is Aēsop in the loos and a wood-panelled warren of louche, Sterling Cooper-ish nooks) and it comes from the team behind Abuelo, a cute, hit café in Covent Garden.
There is commendable, intriguing ambition here, then. So it’s a bit of a downer, particularly with my south-east London blinkers on, to report that it’s not great. That, in fact, it may be one of the more dispiriting, oomph-less places in which I have eaten a meal this year; a muddled, looks-first oddity where tired presentational gimmickry (charcoal toast, edible flowers, an allotment’s worth of micro greens indiscriminately lobbed on basically everything) sadly crowds out the common sense desirability so necessary to make this kind of thing work.
The warning signs were there right away. I took the whole family on a grey Saturday afternoon and we were met by maybe three different servers. Clad in black, they were all eager but jittery, like panicked stagehands at a fringe theatre. It was fairly busy, filled with brunching groups, beaming Dog Parents and couples guiding wary visiting relatives through the very short, determinedly scattergun menu.
Pea pancake brought a thin fritter, capably fried and stacked with smooshed avocado and poached egg, but buried beneath a watery hedgerow of leaves and cucumber ribbons, and strewn with pointless rubbled pistachio. ‘Big Dippers’ (a dense chilli and tomato soup with accompanying thick, quartered cheese toasties) was fine in a ‘most reliable order at a park café’ sort of way. Brisket Cubano was more like a stodgy patty melt; enormous twin bricks of bread, wadded shreds of slightly grey beef, melted cheese and an unpalatable quantity of wholegrain mustard. My wife suggested taking the boys to the cinema afterwards, and it tells you everything about my state of mind that I genuinely perked up at the idea of watching a 97-minute film about a CGI yeti.
Some moist, characterful cakes offered partial respite. But Mama Fuego currently feels like it needs to drastically simplify its offering, and rein in the wearying attempts at photogenic distinctiveness. It is fussy, joy-free food in the manifestation of a lively ideas meeting run amok. And all neighbourhoods, even the ones that happen to have their own 20,000 capacity arena, deserve better than that.
1 Brisket Cubano £11.50
1 Big Dippers £9.50
1 Green pea pancake £12
1 Mini lemon bundt £3.50
1 Pistachio, passion fruit live oil bundt £5
2 Blueberry friand £7
2 Brockley breakfast teas £5.60
1 Sticky chai £3.20
1 Long black coffee £2.60
1 Orange juice £2.80
10 Cutter Lane, North Greenwich, SE10 (mamafuego.co.uk)