I don’t know how many times I’ve stood, pint in hand, outside this landmark pub. It’s the corner spot just off Farringdon Lane with huge Victorian sash windows that, on a sunny lunchtime, let in the light as dazzlingly as any conservatory.
Before chancing upon it again after a visit to see Basquiat at the Barbican, I hadn’t realised it was recently taken over by the team behind The Culpeper, the Commercial Street cocktail pub, restaurant and cocktail bar.
But, as we discover, that explains the high quality experience, and just a smidgeon of – not smugness – but self-assuredness when we stroll in, wide-eyed, asking for a table for two on a low-key autumnal Sunday.
There are none available, says the barman, although – after an X-Factor-style pause – he adds that he may be able to squeeze us in. And so we linger, leaning against the bar, nursing a London-brewed beer, while gazing at the pared-back interior, all school tables, royal blue walls (covered in symbiotic art), stripped boards, granny plants and the odd armchair. It’s all so Clerkenwell I feel like I’m 25 again, on an inaugural visit to London’s first ever gastropub, The Eagle.
There isn’t much choice, menu-wise, but this is of course a good thing. And, fearing a big pile of unfinishable food (my pet hate about pub roasts) we agree to share what turns out to be a tiny starter. A nest of Scottish girolles, laced with garlic and parsley, comes crowned with a creamy warm duck yolk: mopped up with homemade bread, it nears perfection. We want another.The roasts (just two on offer, mind) are even better and something of a snip at £18. Eschewing the black Norfolk chicken, we both plump for a beef wellington, a dish I’ve not eaten in years. Rosily pink, its pastry crust flaky and golden, it’s a generous helping: a couple of thick slices of juicy sirloin, with an exactly-right proportion of vegetables.
Roast potatoes are so crunchy on the outside, and so pillowy within, that they must have seen the inside of an oven at least twice; and two tangy heaps of red and white cabbage nuzzle up to an amorphous Yorkshire pud that’s not, for once, of ludicrously comic size.
Worth a mention, too? The Gassac rouge, a wine of easy-drinking joy, all blissed-out Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Languedoc, which flirts fittingly with the beef.
In short, it’s the kind of place that oozes neighbourhood appeal, despite Clerkenwell being so uber these days. In villagey fashion, sure enough we chat to a lively foursome (with flopsy dog) at the table next to us, who turn out to be positively evangelical about the pub, before reeling off all the bar snacks – creamy croquettes! Chicken liver parfait! – that we simply must return to try. And it really is wildly popular, too: throughout the meal, a succession of wannabe customers are turned away. We feel pleased to have arrived early-doors.
“Sundays in pubs are sacrosanct for many people,” the owners say rather sincerely on their website. “To live up to expectations, we focus on doing just two roast options really well.”
In two words? Nailed it. We didn’t taste a better pub roast all year.