Michael Kittos and Craig Schorn saw plenty of dross when investigating Grand Metropolitan's 'Inntrepreneur' scheme. But they also saw, and leased (as partners), a barn of a pub, the George & Dragon, in Clerkenwell, north London. This gin palace presides over a grimy intersection near where the City of London, Islington and Holborn converge. Formerly, its big, lovely windows were perpetually filmed with exhaust. It was a favourite venue for loudmouth City workers - journalists and stockbrokers - to hold raucous stag nights: they would not be recognised and would never return.
The George & Dragon deserved better. Even the roughest back streets of Clerkenwell had, and to a degree retain, the spirit of old London. The area was once an artisanal centre. Handsome late Victorian warehouses and street names such as Ironmonger Row attest to that. Now it has a broader mix: printers, architects, lawyers, fashion designers, Tube drivers, Italian deli owners and posey kids who want to work in the arts.
Given such a modern urban clientele, quite why Messrs Schorn and Kittos renamed the George & Dragon The Peasant is anyone's guess. But I admire the simple grace of the new place all the same. The pub has been scraped out and left a glorious big shell, with the original central bar, a job lot of whirly-girly candlesticks and a decent collection of newly stripped tables and chairs. Best of all, it now accommodates a most uncompromising, idealistic and earthy chef.
She is Carla Tomasi, formerly the proprietor of Frith's, in Soho. Several years ago, skyrocketing rents and competition from theme restaurants were the end of her understated, rather wonderful little place. She has knocked about since, giving cookery courses, writing cookery books, advising supermarkets, shaking her head at the excesses of food punditry and at what passes in trendy restaurants for 'Mediterranean'.
She should know. Ms Tomasi is a Roman, but has lived in London for some 20 years. Her repertoire is mainly Italian, giving unusual attention to the rough, hot and coarse flavours of the south and the cous- cous of Sicily. But she is no chauvinist. She is fond of hard Greek cheeses and spiced Lebanese nuts.
I know Ms Tomasi slightly and admire her a great deal. This is not to say she is a perfect chef. Her food can be rough, too rough. Her rocket salads can be so peppery as to bring tears to your eyes, the crust of her country bread so hard that your teeth crack.
Still, she cooks real food with the best of ingredients. It is vividly flavoured, distinct in texture and generous in quantity. Moreover, at least half is usually vegetarian. She treats fish, poultry, game and beef respectfully and with skill. The care shows even when she puts chorizo on a plate of antipasti - sliced correctly, at an angle.
Our group of five one evening managed to taste almost everything on the menu. A Tuscan bean and wheat stew was thick, warm and satisfying, if a little bland. Just the opposite problem afflicted a spinach, lentil and potato broth, which was so hot from chillies it made the eyes and nose run. Baked monkfish was moist and pefectly cooked: both layers of skin had been removed, so it did not contract tightly with the cooking. It was prepared with sharp, preserved lemon rinds, which gave real punch.
There was a lot of grilled haloumi, a squeaky Greek cheese, about: first in a platter of antipasti and then as a vegetarian starter with baked onion and black olive chutney. Presentation is sumptuous. Bowls are big-brimmed, deep and pretty. Sitting in just such a vessel, a starter of tagliolini with a cheese and tomato sauce was perfect, and quite enough for a main course. It had two cheeses: parmesan and great whacking amounts of ricotta.
The bar is already lined with pickling jars. You name it, Ms Tomasi cures it: aubergines, mushrooms, citrus fruit, ginger, onions, peppers. She gives these the fire of good vinegar and the acrid strain of bay leaves. At the moment, bread comes from a local Italian deli, but after the holidays Ms Tomasi will bake. This is good news. At Frith's, she once was delivered a crate of plaintains by mistake. They went into a banana bread, for which she sent me the recipe. It was delicious. She makes first-class sourdough, with a hard, thick crust and light centre - none of the damp, leaden loaves that go under the same name.
A price of pounds 4.50 might seem steep for chocolate, amaretti and prune pudding - until you get a wedge that is super-rich and covers nearly a quarter of a pie plate. She credits the recipe for a crumbly cake to Anna del Conte's book, Italian Kitchen. The trick here is spicing poached pears with chilli, which cuts the sweetness with a hot kick.
The beers include Guinness, Adnams, Theakstons Old Peculier, something called Old Speckled Hen and even run to a Bavarian wheat beer and a Belgian cherry number. The wines, which are under review and probably improving daily, were either ordinary or bad during our visit. A Rioja Albor Tinto '91 was undrinkable. Espresso was fine and the prices keen.
The Peasant, 240 St John Street, London EC1 (071-336 7726). Meals from pounds 5- pounds 15, beers from pounds 1.80 per pint; wines from pounds 8 per bottle. Open Mon-Fri 12 noon- 11pm; lunch and dinner served, last orders 2.30pm and 10pm. Piped music. Visa, Access.
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