London is great for eating out these days. Actually, it’s probably a bit too great. Since the collapse of the great economic soufflé in 2008, a new generation of restaurateurs with small, often van or cycle cart-sized businesses started popping up (as did the actual pop-ups) all over the place.
Some would nest under bridges while others flourished bringing life to old churchyards. Now, many of these pipedreams by the waterside have secured more than one permanent premises, scattered across the capital. The initiative was taken and, to coin an overused but accurate phrase, the game was changed.
This big bang of various food cultures and ways of eating that Western Europe was, until recently, unfamiliar led an unnecessary but predictable rebellion against fine dining in the media. Unnecessary because it was overshooting the mark; fine dining is a niche market and isn’t meant to have the accessibility that these new kids on the block were offering.
One thing that is accessible but was left out in this narrative and where many Londoners frequent several times a week, however, is the pub. Yes, we can all rattle off lists of pubs we like to eat in. One standout to note must be the Ape & Bird in the West End, brought to us by the team behind the brilliant Polpo franchise. I’ll definitely require a second visit before putting pen to paper on that one.
The majority of rebranding for most of these bars, however, all unfortunately follow the same narrative: ‘Pub & Kitchen’ or ‘Bar & Grill’ or some other glaringly dull and obvious statement as to what you might find inside in case you were disappointed not to find yourself wandering around the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ironically, if we go back a few courses to the fine dining argument, many of these gastropubs are nothing short of honeytraps of extortion. A few pints and a main course chosen from a menu as wide-ranging as Japan to Jarrow will sting you for well over £20.
Yes, Coq au Vin; the dish that has been murdered for decades to the point of social extinction at weddings, corporate dinners and various evening functions nationwide.
There are dining rooms with Michelin Stars quietly glistening above the restaurant which will happily serve you three courses and maybe even a glass of wine for the same price. You’d think such an apparent schism in quality for the same price would have a solution. It does. To over-coin an overused phrase – the game has changed – in favour of our beloved pubs.
I was invited to one of Chelsea’s well hidden but well known gems of public houses, The Builders Arms on Britten Street for dinner one evening, loosely-based on the claims made above.
Of course, I was intrigued. Of course, I was sceptical. ‘The Origin of Eateries’ idea in its bold originality had my curiosity instantly. Every Wednesday, the menus would pay homage to the traditions and evolution of eating out – from Escoffier to the Steak House, to the Trattoria and even contemporary fine dining. I had been landed with the session showcasing the Brasserie: possibly my favourite form of classics-based French dining. A good start.
Curiosity developed into my full attention when the starters arrived. The frogs legs, beautifully seasoned and presented on a lilypad of nicely-reduced claret jus, were the plumpest and juiciest I’ve ever devoured – and devoured is the correct word. I was hopping for joy.
Whenever I visit a brasserie for the first time, I always use the soupe de poisson as a gauge; if a kitchen puts in the effort to make a good bowl of soup, you’re generally on to a winner. This didn’t disappoint either.
Generously adorned with shreds of Gruyère and rouille croutons, anyone enjoying this dish could easily make colossal cheese strands about a mile long and all over the table. Texture-wise, it was a bit too smooth for my liking, however the flavours were spot on and easily stood up to what you’ll find in Colbert or Zédel. The added peppery kick was noted and duly enjoyed; perfect warmth for a summer’s evening.
When judging classics there was only one option for main course I could put to the test: Coq au Vin. Yes, Coq au Vin; the dish that has been murdered for decades to the point of social extinction at weddings, corporate dinners and various evening functions nationwide. We’ve all been traumatised by it in the past.
The meat fell off the bone so easily that the idea of needing any cutlery at all seemed absurd. Bravo.
I’m relieved to report that the suffering is over. This bird was so painstakingly-marinated to perfection the damn thing was almost totally purple on the inside. These days it’s all about the pink smoke line on a slab of brisket which has been slow-smoking in a pit for a decade before being presented on some shit board covered in other peoples’ knife scraping marks.
It’s pleasing to see that proper care, in the same parts of town, is going into getting the classics perfected. Consequently the meat fell off the bone so easily that the idea of needing any cutlery at all seemed absurd. Bravo.
The crème caramel pipped the tarte Tatin to the post for choice of pudding – another dish which has experienced gastronomic cleansing for crimes against en masse catering in yesteryear. Happily, the pastry chef delivered a dish of just the right temperature, with a bold balancing act of bitter and sweet.
It’s nice to be proved wrong sometimes; it’s a great test of humility. When this proposition first came my way, I was sceptical, as I mentioned before. It’s a very ambitious project but, as far as I know, totally original.
Did this humble pub pull it off? You’re damn right it did. In these times of accelerated gastronomic advancement in London, which I believe has the most dynamic and fast-paced dining culture on earth today, it’s easy to get carried away and develop a sense of pretence about what one knows about a particular food culture from a part of the world perhaps never visited.
Pretence breeds ignorance and one thing the Builders Arms has achieved with this venture is to educate and delight diners with an informative and delicious scheme which will keep the punters coming through the doors.
I can say with much aplomb I’m looking forward to their next big idea. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting in a restaurant nearby eating overpriced, faux pulled pork and engraving ‘Go to the Builders Arms’ on my piece of shit wooden-board for the next unfortunate diner to discover
The Builders Arms
13 Britten Street, Chelsea, SW3 3TY
020 7349 9040