Gastro pub. What a stuck in-the-middle, fence sitter of a label. Trite terminology aside, my only real issue with it is that it’s become a cypher for stripped floorboards and style-over-substance, over-priced, bland, rubbish food. And so it ends up hiding a number of very good pubs that serve very good food. But what other term is there to use?
Simple food, executed with the highest ability. This is the mark of a true gastro pub. Places like the Anchor & Hope, The Gunmakers, The Fox & Anchor. And The Drapers Arms. It’s not about the presentation or the decor, it’s about the ethos of the food. A mongrel mix of unpretentious English-with-influences grub. Not too messed around with and of the highest provenance.
Sure, the Drapers Arms looks nice, with dark wood floorboards and simple tables that fit the high ceilinged Georgian building. It’s light, airy and big enough to allow you to focus on your food without bumping elbows with (or spattering gravy on) neighbouring diners.
The food is the very definition of unfussy and well prepared. It comes as no surprise that the chef is a former acolyte of Fergus Henderson, whose St John has incubated a lot of London talent, spreading its simple-but-brilliantly-cooked vision of English food around the capital.
We chose brawn, potted shrimp and broccoli with mustard seeds. And in keeping with this style of food, it was the simple sounding broccoli that starred. Cooked to tender perfection, the purple sprouting shafts had been bathed in a mustard seed, garlic and onion infused oil that gave the dish layers of aromatic flavour.
Brawn was a dense and meaty slice of piggy bits, well matched with a superb tangy sourdough. The intense shrimp came potted in a small ceramic ramekin bursting with small and tasty brown curls liberally laced with mace.
It was more of the same style for mains. Onglet came with chips and was cooked rare. Meaty and a little chewy. A decent steak but not spectacular. Mind you, I’m suffering from onglet overload at the moment – everywhere seems to have it at the moment, Chips were very tasty.
Baked bream was a triumph. A big, meaty fish served whole on the plate, it was packed full of moist and flavorful flesh, and having it whole meant that I could dig into my favourite part of the fish – the cheeks. Fish can be hit or miss in restaurants as chefs often over- or under-cook it. But not here.
Beef pie was full of tender, tasty beef, topped with a great crust. The only downside was that a side order of sprout tops came so over salted as to be inedible. But the staff took this with good grace, apologised and took them off the bill.
By this point in the evening my belly was straining at my shirt buttons and I was all set to gracefully decline dessert. Until I saw lardy cake. Lardy cake? I haven’t seen that since I was a small Cornish child tearing around town. I LOVE lardy cake.
And this rendition was hard to fault. The dough was springy but with a decent heft, the raisins were plump and moist and there was loads of spice. Perfect. The lard used in baking gave it a real richness too. Delicious.
The Drapers Arms then is one of those rare finds. A real gastro pub. Simple food cooked with real skill. And at about £25 a head for three courses and drink, it was a bargain.
Drapers Arms, 44 Barnsbury Street, N1 1ER, 020 7619 0348 www.thedrapersarms.com/