Great Queen Street: Smart chef, seasonal menu, no gimmicks – Great Queen Street has all the makings a great British bistro
Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen Street, London, WC2
Sunday 16 September 2007
People ask why I bother scoring the restaurants I review. Surely the words tell the story. But for me the score is an integral part of the judgement, providing context, perspective and a point of reference. Besides, I'm addicted to it. Scoring, I mean.
I score all the time now. The coffee in my new neighbourhood café is a definite three out of 20; my chiropractor runs an average of 13; and my new blue plimsolls are a surprising 18. The weather currently stands at eight out of 20, but, then, so does the climate, so no change there.
And so to today's 14 (oh, come on, you know you peeked) for Great Queen Street, the latest effort from The Eagle founder Mike Belben and former Eagle chef Tom Norrington-Davies, and Anchor & Hope's Rob Shaw and Jonathan Jones.
It's not like school, where a 14 meant "try harder". Most of my favourite restaurants are 14s. With a 14, you know where you are. It won't be perfect, but you'll eat well, have a good time and consider coming back again.
The former sports bar has been stripped back to plain, red-wine walls, and bare boards, with wooden tables tucked in all over the place. The paper menu is also stripped back, using the St John template of "what you see is what you get". Potted shrimps. Rabbit pie. Crab on toast. Pollack with split peas and bacon. Potato soup with snails and garlic. Most of the dishes could easily be the answer to that eternal question, "What's for dinner mum?"
First up, pressed tongue (£5.80) is a single slab of jellied terrine ramped up with herbs in the style of a French jambon persillé, with a lick of mustardy vinaigrette. With crusty bread on the side from the St John bakery, it's all you need.
I also really like the sweet, sour, fruity flavours of a sardine and panzanella salad (£7.20), the fish soused like Spanish boquerones and strewn over a messy mix of peppers, olives, tomatoes, capers and chunks of bread soaked in the bright, zingy juices.
Unlike at the Anchor & Hope, reservations are taken or you can nab a stool at the long bar, broad enough for comfortable dining. Looking down it, I can see two girls sharing roast plaice, 10 flutes of Pol Roger being poured, espresso coffee going out, and a waitress taking a gift bunch of flowers from a table to put in water. It's a good view to have.
The wine list is a solid, pan-Euro selection with all but a handful of bottles under the £30 mark. At exactly £30, a 2005 Domaine de la Ferté Givry is all silk and spice, the perfect match for roast chicken and chips (£26 for two). A huge, mumsy china platter holds a crisp-skinned golden beauty with a tumble of salad, its own pan juices and a pot of mustard mayo. It's half a bird, but half of such a big-breasted, stout-legged free-range old breed that there is enough for three or four people. I love that it is served on the bone, the breast chopped into huge chunks and the leg left intact. The flavour is rewarding, although the breast meat is a little dry, and the accompanying potato chips are bland.
Desserts are small, light, and come in little Duralex glasses, except for a wedge of light, moussey, citrussy cheesecake on a rich biscuit base with a few fresh raspberries (£5). There's no cream and no garnish – neither of which it needs, of course. And that's the best thing about Great Queen Street. It gives you all the things you need, and none of the things you don't. It's a plain-talking sort of place, soundly designed and firmly constructed; clever and modern, without gimmickry.
Giving a good, everyday place like this a higher score than 14 wouldn't achieve anything except raise expectations. I'd rather you expected nothing more than well-sourced, seasonal produce from small-scale producers, an intelligent cook, likeable staff who keep up the pace and a bill that couldn't be fairer if it tried.
Scores: 1-9: stay home and cook, 10-11: needs help, 12: ok, 13: pleasant enough, 14: 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
Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen Street, London WC2Tel: 020 7242 0622. Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, Dinner Monday-Saturday. About £75 for two including wine and service
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