An outside restaurant that’s also inside. This wood-burning rustic wonderland is Southwark’s hidden gem.

As Mayor Khan continues his mission to rule over London with an iron fist, how long before the wood-fired pizza oven comes into his panda-eyed sights?

Already we’re being told that those of us who have wood-burning stoves are insouciant child killers, even though all we really want to do is just to stay warm in the absence of affordable gas and electricity as we head toward Net Zero..

So surely wood-fired pizza ovens are inexcusable? Well, I won’t man the barricades for much these days, but I will hop up and down with rage if wood-fired ovens ever feel the wrath of Khan. Nothing cooks pizza better.

And having visited In Horto, my love for the wood is stronger than ever.

First the concept, the name means In The Garden, although in fact you’re In The Car Park because that’s what it used to be many years ago. Part of the ever-expanding Southwark Quarter development, In Horto is open to the elements in summer and cosily closed in during the colder months. Space heaters take off the chill and there are lots of snug blankets too,  as a more eco-friendly solution.

We went in at lunchtime, on a late January day when, after the previous week’s chilling minus figures, the outside temperature felt rather tropical at +7 degrees.  We can still relish the welcoming warmth of that big oven at the far end though, and sit as close as we can to it,  without actually being on the pass.

‘Don’t fill up on the bread,’ advises our waiter cheerfully. Advice that falls on deaf ears, as after being presented with a brilliant selection of home-baked bread and a choice of both Nduja and burnt onion, homemade butter, we are soon making swift inroads into it. 

Thankfully we are diverted away in time by a sharing platter of superb charcuterie from Borough Market, partnered with antipasto oily artichokes, sun dried tomatoes, gigantic capers and gorgeous green olives. These great meats, all tangled gleefully onto the platter, keep us busy as the big oven begins its work on our mains.

The dishes from the oven can be one person or sharing, so we share two. I rather fancied the roasted four cheese cauliflower, but can’t resist the sound of Horto’s signature 12-hour lamb shoulder with harissa vegetables. For protein balance we also have the cod fillet with fire-roasted ratatouille. We carry on with eating the meats as we wait, knocking back a very decent Beujolais en route.

Both dishes come in iron pans, sizzling hot and looking fantastic. The lamb so tender from its long cook and warmed with North African spices is the best thing I’ve had this year (so far).

Chunky roasted carrots glisten in a rich sauce spicy with not too hot harissa, but the broccoli needs a bit more roasting. Still, undercooked broccoli is perfectly edible and it was happily eaten. I rather like the crunch.

The cod is perfect, big chunky fish fast roasted in a searing oven rarely fails to please. The ratatouille is gorgeously collapsed, with the juice of the roast tomatoes holding everything together along with a sharp lemon salsa. Confit potato chips are a cool idea,  but frankly I’d have preferred some couscous for the lamb and small potatoes baked in the oven for the fish.

Pretty stuffed by now we manage a Tiramisu, which is a bit dry and lacking in booze, and a chocolate mousse, honeycomb and salted caramel ice cream which is as good as it sounds. The salt being particularly welcome.

It’s a lovely space and can only get lovelier as the temperature goes up, but don’t let that put you off going right now. You never know when the pastoral pleasure of a natural fire will be made illegal, so savour that smoke while you can.