Monday, 20 May 2013
Newman Street Tavern, Fitzrovia
Such is the relentless pace of change - and not just change, progress - of London's restaurants that even that once-great totem of British cuisine, the gastropub, was in danger of looking a bit tired. Many of the old stalwarts (and I won't single any out but if you ever took an interest in eating out in London from around 1995 onwards you'll know which I'm talking about) haven't changed much about the way they're doing things since they first opened, and in the same way as you wouldn't these days consider a Rover Metro a cutting-edge example of automotive design, that non-specifically Mediterranean cous-cous-and-sun-dried-tomatoes gastropub fayre is no longer the advance guard. Once you could pick up a "gastropub" ready meal from Waitrose, the writing was on the chalkboard.
Well, fear not. The times they are a-changing, and like any successful industry, progress is driven by innovation and reinvention. The Newman Street Tavern is, at first glance, just another revamped boozer in Central London serving modern British cuisine, and could have made a very tidy profit just trotting out the usual crowd-pleasers and marking up South African wine. Instead, it quite unexpectedly served me and a couple of friends one of the most interesting and exciting and - crucially - technically impressive meals I can remember eating in W1.
The food NST are cooking isn't, on the face of it, anything completely groundbreaking. It is still Modern British from the St John school, hunks of meat or fish with salad, cottage pie, soups, etc. and so forth. On the one hand it's all quite familiar. But look a bit closer and you'll notice that they aren't playing anything safe - the starters require proper cooking and contain the kinds of words ("wild garlic, "saffron aioli", "cured wild trout") that make you want to bed in and try them all one by one. The mains, too, (token veggie offering aside) use genuinely exciting ingredients like suckling kid and pouting but there are no obvious fillers, no burgers or Caesar salad or anything bulked out with polenta. Yes, there's a steak, and I suppose cottage pie isn't too easy to mess up, but by and large it's a menu that would get anyone - even a shallow, jaded, trend-chasing food blogger like me - salivating.
And it tastes as good as it reads. Crab bisque was packed full of the main ingredient, but still delicate enough to make finishing a bowl of it as easy and pleasurable as drinking a glass of barrel-aged Jura. Devon crab salad (not pictured; I didn't forget but it came out so badly I didn't want to do the chef the disservice of publishing it) again had plenty of crab, but wouldn't have been half as good without a dollop of earthy brown crab mixture by the side. And some "Manilla" (no idea) clams had a good sweet flavour and there were loads of them, although the advertised saffron aioli was subtle bordering on stealthy.
Out of sheer food-bore curiosity I ordered a single gull's egg, having never tried them before and keen to see what all the fuss was about. I hesitate to dismiss them completely as a fad after just the one, but aside from the shocking deep orange colour of the yolk there was nothing out of the ordinary about this at all. Perhaps there are good and bad gull's egg, or perhaps this was the Emperor's New Egg. At £7.50 for a single one, too, I'm not sure I'll bother again.
Mains were all of an equally high quality as the starters. Pork belly came arranged in so much stock it could have been sold as a soup, but fortunately was so intensely, richly flavoured any presentational failings were forgiven. A single large ray wing, as beautifully sculptured as the Sydney Opera House, stood proudly unadorned and the flesh lifted from the cartilage in gleaming white chunks. But best of all (and I would say that as I ordered it) was a combination platter of langoustine and plaice, the plaice in particular tasting better than any fish in recent memory. Yes, the langoustine was a tad under, and the compulsion to dress everything with plain watercress needs a bit of a rethink, but this was still by and large incredibly good stuff.
Desserts - sticky toffee pudding and a rhubarb sorbet - were the only dishes on the menu that leaned slightly towards unimaginative. They weren't bad, but you could tell their energies weren't as focussed on this part of the menu as the savouries. Still, it all got eaten, even if the rather sour sorbet was a bit more of a struggle than the pudding.
Even if Newman Street Tavern represents nothing more than a gradual evolution of the gastropub theme without radically redrawing the map, it's still a fantastic place to have a meal and for not really that much money. But I got the distinct impression that there was more than just a lick of paint and a liberal use of a few seasonal buzzwords on the menu on top of the traditional template. The unapologetically British ingredients, minimalist presentation and unpretentious service are all vaguely familiar to anyone who's eaten at St John Bread & Wine or, say, 32 Great Queen Street but here it was all just that little bit more refined, skilful and - for want of a better word - "modern". And if this is the way things are headed, we've got a whole lot to look forward to.