Fox and Grapes, 9 Camp Road, Wimbledon Common, London
Saturday 02 April 2011
Underground, overground, hurrying to Wimbledon Common, here come the foodies. Their destination, a gastropub on the common's edge which recently reopened under new management. Clearly the Fox and Grapes isn't just any gastropub. You could call it an astro-pub, given the two Michelin stars held by co-owner Claude Bosi, the hugely talented chef-proprietor of Hibiscus.
It is Bosi's reputation – forged in Ludlow, and burnished in Mayfair, where Hibiscus relocated in 2007 – which has attracted the foodies (and me) to Wimbledon, curious to see what happens when a French chef fêted for his directional, modern style gets his hands on a traditional English pub. The signs are promising – the Fox and Grapes shares many of its suppliers with Hibiscus, the restaurant is managed by Claude's brother Cedric, and head chef Patrick Leano has worked at both Hibiscus and the Capital.
Identifying the gastro-pub as the British equivalent of the bistro, Bosi and co have attempted to marry retro and comfort food with something more restaurant-ish; the menu offers Herefordshire snail lasagne as well as fish and chips. That balance is reflected in the redesign of the pub. From the outside, it's picturesquely traditional, but the doors swing open into a light, vaulted dining room of chapel-like dimensions, all scrubbed wood and New Englandy tongue-and-groove in pale heritage colours.
My guests, the pre-eminent literary chronicler of Wimbledon life, Nigel Williams and his wife Suzan, felt the conversion preserved something of the atmosphere of the old pub, where Nigel was a quiz-night regular. They were impressed, too, by the home-made pork scratchings (properly warm) and the well-kept Hook Norton bitter (properly cool) which kept them going until I made a flustered late appearance.
But we couldn't quite get a bead on the menu, which combines the bog-standard – Cumberland sausage on buttered mash, burger and chips – with the weirdly unappetising; I give you broccoli and blue cheese soup, or vegetable pie and spring greens. Only one starter – snail lasagne – excited us, but our waitress breezily informed us it was off.
We tried to give both sides of the menu a work-out, and found the pub-style dishes more satisfying than the cheffier ones. Best of our starters was a slice of pork pie, traditionally made but with a subtle apple flavour to the jelly, served with homemade piccalilli. "Classic prawn cocktail" was almost that, but the substitution of flabby and textureless crayfish tails for prawns meant it fell short of its billing. A salad of new season white asparagus was pallidly uninteresting, the albino spears needing something punchier than crumbled boiled egg and baby spinach to lift them.
Mains were all good, particularly the fish and chips – or at least the fish part, foamily fresh hake in a brown-ale batter which had a dry, almost tempura-like, crunch. Had the chips really been chips, rather than fried wedges of skin-on potato, it would have been great. Roasted lemon sole, served with shrimp and caper butter, was marginally undercooked, not flaking from the bone with the expected softness. But a slab of belly pork was nicely done, with a layer of black pudding under a lid of crackling so crisp it called for specialist trepanning equipment to drill down through it to the soft flesh below.
Despite the decent quality of most of what we ate (I'll draw a veil over a borderline-unpleasant vanilla and pear junket), we struggled to warm to the Fox and Grapes. A long wait for our main courses, and the "yeah, it's coming"-style response of our waitress, highlighted the problem with gastropubs in general, and this one in particular; the food may be of restaurant quality, but the service is distinctly pubbish. When you're paying upwards of £50 a head, you want to feel that someone is looking after you, and we didn't feel that.
The wine list favours small producers and organic, biodynamically produced wines, but you're on your own when it comes to navigating it. This disconnect between ambition and delivery doesn't seem to have deterred the locals; it was packed out, with an urban buzz at odds with the bucolic setting. When a group of well-refreshed men broke into a chorus of "O Sole Mio", it felt like the place's suburban roadhouse roots were peeking out from under the sleek new makeover.
In the summer, the place will come into its own, as customers spill out on to the Common with their drinks, and the location really is pretty – the most beautiful view in the whole of England, according to Nigel. But I'm not sure I would cross London, or even Wimbledon, for a second visit. If they ever decide to resurrect the tradition of the old pub quiz, the first question would surely be why has a chef as famously exacting and experimental as Claude Bosi risked his reputation by launching this rather dull place?
Fox and Grapes, 9 Camp Road, Wimbledon Common, London SW19 (020-8619 1300)
Around £50 a head for three courses, including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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