A very fine swan indeed

Flocks of ugly duckling bars have transformed their looks and fortunes by going gastro. But the latest handsome fledgling is still loyal to its pubby past
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Indy Lifestyle Online

What was the Mucky Duck is now the White Swan. Well, of course it is. Ever since David Eyre and Mike Belden bought a run-down pub called the Eagle in London's Farringdon in 1991, and pushed out their robust, rough-edged home-cooking, there have been an awful lot of mucky ducks trying to turn themselves into beautiful, profitable white swans with varying degrees of success.

Pub-lovers might tell you that the gastropub movement is ripping the heart and soul out of the great British boozer, but food-lovers will say pubs should have done more than crisps and nuts when they had the chance. Besides, a good gastropub can upgrade the quality of its cooking without destroying what makes a good local. Places such as the Havelock Tavern in Olympia, the Anglesea Arms in Shepherd's Bush and the newly reincarnated Anchor & Hope in Waterloo (see Second Helpings) are 100 per cent proof.

The owners of the White Swan, Tom and Ed Martin (who also own the Well in St John Street), actually have a webbed foot in either puddle. The ground floor is still very old-time pubby, with its floorboards, basic wooden tables and pint-lifting City-boy crowd. But climb the creaky stairs and it's a bird of a different feather.

The first-floor dining-room is pure restaurantville, complete with mustard banquettes, tastefully pale walls, serious chairs, clothed tables and a ceiling of mirror tiles straight out of Hugh Hefner's bedroom.

After the clatter of downstairs, it's eerily calm, and the waiters, while not unfriendly, are slightly more reserved than the tables.

But chef Jason Scrimshaw, who has cooked at both Bibendum and Chez Bruce, has put together a menu that reads like a dream - a compatible mix of Modern British, French and Mediterranean. It feels both confident and contemporary, running from reassuringly pub-friendly dishes such as grilled onglet with béarnaise and calves' kidneys with creamed endive to more cheffy gnocchi with pear, sherry and blue cheese, and roast cod with chorizo, tomato and basil.

The proffered focaccia bread is gorgeous, freshly baked and unusually light, with a higher rise and softer crumb than is traditional but with the same wonderfully salty, soft-crunch exterior. To serve butter with an olive-oil based bread, however, shows a basic lack of understanding.

From the moment the radicchio and snail risotto hits the table, you are left in no doubt as to the chef's ability. The bleeding purple rice bristles with huge, feral flavour, driven by the bitter bite of the shredded radicchio. A trail of fleshy snails adds bounce and gives the feeling of nibbling on little ears. Everything about the textbook texture and consistency of the rice suggests that it has been made to order.

More good-looking kitchen handiwork comes in the form of a soft, snowy mound of brandade topped with a single poached egg dressed with flecky chive oil. The whole thing feels fresh, light, subtle and more delicate than the usual heavy, creamy brandade. Perhaps the rehydrated cod has been too finely shredded, spun into white fairy floss that has a tendency to wad juicily between the teeth, but it's still good. A textural counterpoint of some form of crisp toast or croute would make it better.

The wine list is a long way from a few scrawly blackboard specials. Instead you get a Francophiliac 20-pager that runs up to a 1995 Cheval Blanc for £195. Most prices are bearable if not cheap, and for less than £30, a 2000 Givry "La Grande Berge" from Eric Desvignes has both clarity and presence.

After the generous, rustic starters, main courses are more formed, like art on the plate. Roast cod is high on the wow factor, a dramatic plug of fish - juicy, fresh, and crisply seared on top - emerging from a pool of cleverly contrasting light, meaty jus. To the side, little bits of diced chorizo and tomato with a dollop of crème fraîche form a culinary non sequitur.

Sauces are a strong point, with a sensational golden mustard sauce being the best thing about a saddle and leg of rabbit with crisped streaky bacon. The sweet rabbit flavour combines well with the smokiness of the bacon and the steely taste of wilted spinach, but the meat is hard to cut.

A mandarin and vodka trifle is a glamorous update, layered with slinky vodka jelly, fresh mandarin, cream and crunchy crumbs of biscotti. I'm not sure who to blame for the Sussex Pond Pudding - Scrimshaw or Sussex. I don't like this miniature version with its soggy suet lining and coarse, sugary filling of chopped-up bits of lemon and orange, but then I think the original - with a whole lemon inside - was a strange idea in the first place.

For the overall quality, the price of £18 for two courses is hard to beat. So the Swan is mostly good news, and would be better if it could warm-up the service, speed up the pacing and spread a bit of charm and joy. In other words, be a little less swan and a bit more mucky and ducky. *

14 The White Swan Pub & Dining Room 108 Fetter Lane, London EC4, tel: 020 7242 9696. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday. Two course, £18, three, £22, plus wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 4 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings...

Other superior gastropubs

The Wells 30 Well Walk, London NW3, tel: 020 7794 3785 This long-standing but otherwise undistinguished Hampstead pub was spruced up last year by Tom Etridge and Beth Coventry of Golborne House fame. Ex-Chez Bruce chef Andrew Gale serves up Pierre Koffman's famous pig's trotter and an impressive blood pudding to a lively crowd in a very un-pubby dining-room

Anchor and Hope 36 The Cut, London SE1, tel: 020 7928 9898 I love this place - or maybe it's just cupboard love - for its slow-cooked mutton and barley, its salad of snail, bacon and dandelion, and its crab on toast. Bastard child of St John's and the Eagle, the Anchor brings guts and integrity to the gastropub idiom, with its simple tables, open kitchen, fair prices, cheerful staff and serious wines.

Stagg Inn and Restaurant Titley, Kington, Herefordshire, tel: 01544 230 221 Nicola and Steve Reynolds's village local was the first British pub to be awarded a Michelin star. The first- rate menu makes the most of local ingredients, with dishes such as Herefordshire beef fillet with red wine sauce, Springfield chicken with potato fondant and goat's cheese and fennel tart.