“The pub is Britain’s single greatest contribution to the world of Gastronomy”, discuss?
It’s a thorny issue and you may need to caveat that this discussion must take place post-1991 and the arrival of The Eagle in Clerkenwell. Before that pub food was a wasteland of Bangers in a basket and Findus Crispy Pancakes. To my mind this legacy of styrofoam, deep-fried pap still haunts us. Why else would we need to become embroiled in the rhetoric of “re-inventing the pub”? Why are we hounded by meaningless tags such as Gastro or Dining Pub? If we hadn’t lived in the culinary caves of Mordor for so long then we could say with totally impunity that we were “off down the pub” and no-one would hand us a leaflet on Colonic Irrigation. The frustration is that the stigma remains; there are some incredible pubs in Britain – The Hand & Flowers has Two Michelin stars for Christ’s sake – and yet so turgid is the legacy of culinary sins long since past that it seems we must always single out our successes if only to continue our self-flagelation.
And so to The Empress in Victoria Park. Elliot Lidstone, a chef from Alan Murchison’s stable (he of L’Ortalan & La Becasse) took up the reins back in January and has been garnering praise ever since.
The room is perfect: light, airy, spacious – but not too much so – unpretentious and welcoming. The acoustics are good and you can see into the kitchen. The menu reads well, kicking off with bar snacks (served all day: BIG TICK) before moving into small plates, many of which can be scaled up to a main course. There are five interesting beers on draught and a whole host of good stuff in bottles (another one of those BIG TICKs please). The wine list is genuinely interesting and well priced – Hochar 2005 £27 anyone? It’s always a boon when I want to eat everything on a menu; I like it even more when somebody tells me what I should eat (not just anyone off the street you understand, it helps if they work there). The latter didn’t actually happen, although had we asked I’m sure the very good front of house staff would have obiliged, so I just ordered everything. Ham Croquetas were as good as I’ve had anywhere in London: both crisp & gooey, rich, deep and crammed with hammy goodness. The deep fried Polenta with salsa verde hit the spot and the Pigs’ ears did the right thing. I would suggest the apple sauce that accompanied them should be warm – I think it would work better – but other than that they were chewy pig heaven. There was bone marrow with snails and wild garlic too. The only thing missing was some much needed acidity to cut through all the richness, but the caramelised onion that was thrown into the mix was dark, unctuous and beautifully sweet. The only dish that didn’t do anything for me was the Mackerel with Fregola and Romanesco salad. Everything here was very well executed – the mackerel cooked perfectly – but the ingredients didn’t come together. At least it was healthy; one for the Yummy Mummies of Victoria Park perhaps.
Onglet with Hollandaise and fat chips followed. This was stellar. I love Onglet but you can easily balls it up: 20 secs too long in the pan and it’s dog food. Not so at The Empress: Nailed it. The meat was rich, earthy, the iron from the blood giving that oh-so-lovely metallic twang in the mouth. The Hochar brought out all of this in spades. Things were gathering momentum. Now I’m not a big pudding guy. I’d rather finish with Welsh Rarebit or coffee. Or a pork pie. But here the puds sounded good: Baked cheesecake with blood oranges, Ginger panna cotta & rhubarb anyone? I had that. And Affogato. And a Negroni. This was a blinding panna cotta. The ginger was brilliantly restrained – you got it, never lost it but it didn’t overpower anything. The “wobble” was the sublime tremble of a woman’s breast and the rhubarb cut through the richness just as it should. Home-made honeycomb was sprinkled over and around the rhubarb – a stroke of genius, total genius. That was the texture I was looking for and the sign of a clever chef assured in what he’s doing….Very good Negroni too.
So there you have it – meal for two, two pints, bottle of wine, gratuitous Negronis and a whole lot of food: £100. Boom. The Empress is good. It’s very good. It looks right and it tastes right. It’s up there with the best food pubs in London: Anchor & Hope, The Harewood Arms, Great Queen Street, Bull & Last. Welcome to the club your Majesty, you may yet come to rule the empire.