I have history with the Canonbury. Back in the early noughties, working in an office a few minutes’ walk away, this handsome pub, with one of the capital’s biggest beer gardens, was always our go-to for an alfresco pint. And it was invariably quiet for a daytime meeting, too.
But lunch was never anything to rush there for: steady pub grub, perhaps overpriced, not terrible, but no match for The House (now Smokehouse) on Canonbury Road, at the time the neighbourhood’s destination du jour. The only other choice was the infuriating Alwyne Castle on St Paul’s Road, whose attempts at a decent menu were thwarted by torturous service.
Fast forward to 2015, and I hadn’t been back to this part of Canonbury for a few years; it proved a pleasant stroll from our office off the Cally Road to see how the refreshed pub now looks.
It’s the latest in the line of Young’s premier locations in the capital to receive a spruce-up – and my word, the fading joint now looks smart. Under the stewardship of Oisín Rogers, a bigwig at Young’s, and head chef Nathan Richardson (both of whom have moved from The Ship in Wandsworth), the team have rethought the space without any tasteless decisions.
So the bar now has obligatory dark wooden flooring, high tables and leather banquettes. The dining room, once a rather perfunctory space, is lined with 200 year-old reclaimed oak panelling. Large bay windows offer views over the oasis beyond – and concertina French doors open out onto one the enormo beer garden, with seating space to house half of Islington, not to mention willowy trees and flowerbeds in bloom.
And it’s there that we find ourselves, invited to the try the menu on a lunchtime that’s laden with the threat of rain. Like Young’s refurbished Bull & Gate in Kentish Town, the new offer here is packed with more challenging items: oh look, there’s a white onion custard with parmesan crouton, or some truffled celeriac with girolles. Simple pub food this is not – although a basic bar menu featuring “classics” is, on our visit, proving more popular with locals: we spy at least three burgers and club sandwiches flying out.
Starters are both easy on the eye and deliver feather-light summery satisfaction: salmon tartare may be chunky-cut, but its creamy lemon egg yolk dressing is balanced by the nip of spring onion and sorrel. Scooped up with lighter-than-air barley crackers, it makes for an effortlessly disappearing act. Prettier still is miso-cured beef, fired up by ginger and burnt onion, and cooled by thin-sliced radish. One resolutely not to share next time.
Unlike the petite starters, which leave us nearly licking the plates clean, mains are ambitious – and huge. The mind of a chef, eh? Yet both ours work well with a pale pink Sancerre. A meaty turbot is unusually matched with cubes of brisket – a combination I haven’t encountered before – but its contrasts add a rounded quality, with aromatic depth driven by girolles mushrooms and a slender brick of potato gratin. Only the samphire lets the side down, its stalks a touch woody.
If the turbot feels like something of an arty combination, the duck breast main is a true blockbuster. Sweeping in on a Technicolor bed of fiery carrot and ginger pooled in sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, it delivers hit after hit of umami-packed flavour, mellowed by perfectly cooked green puy lentils and the calming crunch of bok choi. Our only complaint? It’s a burpingly-vast pile of food at lunchtime (or dinner, for that matter). Thank goodness for that half hour walk back to the office.
With the drizzle cleared – we’re seated under a huge parasol – we finish with a less dazzling elderflower panna cotta, while contemplating the history of the pub. Trading since 1750, its garden was originally a massive four acres, in summer packed with all manner of sports, both genteel and rowdy.
Fast forward nearly three hundred years and on this sleepy weekday lunchtime its punters are mainly mums sharing conspiratorial bottles of Sauvignon, their babies sleeping or squawking in turn. Let’s just hope they give the grown-up new menu a proper go.