14 December 2013
Don't believe everything you read!
Negative reviews on Trip Advisor etc, no longer reflect the current high standard of food, friendly service and ambiance at this gem of a venue.
I am basing my review below on a lunchtime weekday visit. I had no knowledge of the previous bar, management or service, so cannot compare my experience with an earlier one.
Shillibeer's had a major shake-up and was completely refurbished during 2013.
It is now proving itself to be a versatile spot for parties, private events, business meetings or a great night out with friends, family and colleagues.
The allegedly erratic performance of the venue through 2012 has been polished up, thanks largely to the hugely proactive manager, Ray Velasquez, whose passion is finally putting this place on the latest ‘in’ places-to-be list. His extensive experience ranges from running bars in Australia to famous London venues including the Camden Tup, The Old Crown in Holborn, The Narrowboat in Angel, The North Star (since called the North Pole) in Islington and now Shillibeer’s.
The kitchen team really deserve a mention, as I was knocked out by the delicacy and attention to detail in the food we were served. Ray told me,
“Our chef, Dul Dorjgotov, came from the NarrowBoat in Angel. He is originally from Mongolia but has been in the UK for approximately 8 years. His 2nd, Odno, is also Mongolian and she has lived here for 9 years. We got them as a team just before Christmas 2012. Funnily enough, Odno is a bit of a celebrity in her home country. She has approximately 35,000 likes on her facebook page! She uploads cooking videos, which have even gained the attention of the Mongolian press. I guess British gastro-food must be the next big thing in Mongolia! ”
“We have regular tasting nights for the menu, keep staff updated with what’s in season, and do our best to cater to anyone’s dietary requirements – even if it’s something we can put together that isn’t available on our regular menu.”
Shillibeer's caters for a wide range of hungry customers. Their onsite takeaway sandwich shop, “The Nosebag”, is particularly popular at lunch time. The pub also does well during that period! The rest of the day sees local businesses' after-work crowds, theatre goers before they catch a show at the Pleasance Theatre above, and people dropping in on their way home. They also sponsor “Man of the Match” awards at the local Market Road football pitches, attracting ravenous players coming back after their games.
“At the weekend we cater for a lot of private functions, such as wedding receptions and birthday parties. The venue holds up to 280, and we are versatile in what we can do. I think the most memorable event we’ve ever had was when the venue was turned into Studio 54 (a famous New York nightclub in the 1970s) for a birthday party. Think light-up dance floor, a ‘man in the moon’, '70s disco outfits, and even a horse, albeit a prop… ‘Google’ Bianca Jagger rides into studio 54!
We've had Sky Sports installed, with a games area (pool table, quiz machine). We have such a big space that, unlike most other pubs, you should easily be able to find a spot to relax,” added Ray proudly.
I asked him about his plans for 2014.
"We’re aiming to get “More Local” over the coming months particularly in January when things slow down a little, encouraging more families to visit us in the evenings and weekends with a children’s menu and a fabulous Sunday roast. We’ll be doing local marketing and may even offer a 2-4-1 on the Sunday roast, so keep an eye out for that. Our website, facebook page and twitter announce special offers, promotions and masses of spot events to welcome new guests and reward our regulars, so do sign up for these!"
A 12 minute walk from Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, and a 5 minute walk from Caledonian Road tube station, this former workshop and factory is a historic treasure, tucked away behind wrought-iron gates, with its original, quaintly cobbled courtyard set back from an admittedly bleak North Road. However, the stark surroundings merely add to a certain smugness in having discovered this secret oasis.
The courtyard, lined with sturdy seating and leafy planters, was nestled protectively out of the wind on the bright winter's afternoon when we arrived, but will certainly provide both welcome shade and a glorious suntrap during warmer seasons.
High ceilings, exposed brick, and down-to-earth, solid wooden furniture – no pretentious ornamentation and fake artefacts here; just a genuine, classically Victorian industrial building. The vast ground floor boasts a magnificent horseshoe-shaped wooden bar, ample seating, and grand Brunel-esque pillars. Leaded windows flood the place with natural light and parquet floors glow responsively with an aged patina. This imbues natural warmth to the raised, spacious restaurant areas with their quirky, old-school wooden tables and chairs. A galleried level with secluded seating provides a cosy, darker retreat for those who prefer it.
On the day we visited, there appeared to be a wide range of interesting beers and ciders. Heineken, Birra Moretti, Amstel, Symonds Cider, Brooklyn Lager, Innis & Gunn and Rekorderlig cider are among the fashionably on-trend drinks available, even cocktails, if you fancy something showier. Being a freehouse, there are 6 constantly changing hand-pulls of draught ales, seasonal offerings and unusual craft brews from independent suppliers.
A decent wine list offers both ‘Old World’ European wines, traditional in complexity and style and ‘New World’ wines from warmer climates and modern production techniques resulting in a softer, fruitier finish, available by the glass and nothing over £25 a bottle.
We were greeted warmly and given free rein to sit wherever we pleased. I have to tell you now that my dining companion during this meal is always up for a laugh or a prank. We both like to do stuff that might seem a bit odd to most people. So when we spotted a table for 2 all by itself on a small platform halfway up a wall, a jest by the management, we looked at each other and just grinned. Via a chair, a radiator and without regard for Health & Safety, we clambered up and claimed our place! It gave the other diners a laugh and we felt like kings. However, this is known wryly as the ‘Ghost Table’, and would not normally be accessible to the public – we were lucky to have arrived at a particularly quiet time and were indulgently allowed to stay there ‘at our own risk’!
From an extensive and reasonably-priced menu I had previously selected two main courses which I felt would display the kitchen's skills: Sea Bass, and Tuna Nicoise (these dishes are seasonal and may not be on the current menu). Both arrived beautifully presented, piping hot and on sparklingly clean quality chinaware. Flatware likewise, no scruffy knives and forks here – and although not needed, ketchup, mayo and the like were delivered to the table in a little picnic basket with our individually napkin-wrapped cutlery, a lovely touch.
My partner-in-crime’s meal was a huge slab of the most tender, juiciest tuna steak, seared perfectly with a hint of pink. Declared to be the best tuna he's had in a very long time, and a generous portion, fit for a bodybuilder! It arrived draped over a mountain of perfectly seasoned and dressed leaf salad with olives, fine beans, zingy baby plum tomatoes, tiny new potatoes and, the tricky part… still-soft, sunshine-yolked, flavourful eggs. Bravo!
The pan-fried sea bass was meltingly succulent, crisp on the skin side and bone-free. I thought it needed a touch of seasoning until I tried it in combination with the powerful chorizo: the saltiness of the pan-sizzling, spiced sausage lifted the sea bass without need of other condiment. Fennel added a cleansing liquorice note to counteract the richness of plentiful warm chorizo-oozed oil.
However, having spent some years in France I'd expected the ‘chorizo, bean and fennel’ fricassee to include broad or butter beans, or haricot blancs, but instead it was green ‘long’ beans. They were perfectly cooked – slightly al dente – but not a personal favourite of mine. I was a smidge disappointed but only because it was not what I'd expected – not a fault. It was a chilly day, and I'd have enjoyed the starchy, warming quality that white beans would have provided.
So, the only thing I could score my meal down on would be the lack of carbs: I'd like to have seen a good slice of crusty bread, dry-griddled, as a toasty base for the stack of beans and fish to soak up the tangy, garlicky oil and bestow a crunchy texture. Or perhaps just a crusty oven-baked roll on the side, with which to greedily wipe the plate! But as I said, this was no criticism, I’m sure bread would have been provided if I’d requested it. As it was, it would make an ideal light summery lunch. Delicious nonetheless.
I finished with a contented sigh though, which is always a good sign.
We observed a table of 6 being served promptly and courteously by a cheerful and friendly member of staff, who had also checked that we had everything we needed, a few moments after we had been given our plates. We noticed that their meals looked as impressive as our own, so with the kind co-operation of the diner I took a photo of his fabulous bangers and mash, which smelled rich and buttery.
There is a deliciously informal, easy-going atmosphere in Shillibeer's, and the food is as good as many a top-notch restaurant without the attendant price tag or (sometimes) attitude. Whether this was due to it being quiet that day, I look forward to finding out on another occasion.
Audio-visual equipment, Dance floor, Disabled access, Late license, Permission to theme/decorate venue,
Outside seating, Attractive courtyard, Spacious & light, Sky Sports, Games, quizzes, frequent offers,