It was a good meal," wrote Len Deighton at some point or other, "and not too damned ethnic." There's nothing too damned ethnic on the menu at Philip Owens Dining Room either, a plain, loft-like space perched atop Corney & Barrow's flagship wine bar in central London.
This is food even a mad dog would recognise in a dark room at 20 paces, much less an Englishman. There is no exotica from the tropics, no strange hybrids from the colonies, not even any fancy French stuff. No pasta, no polenta, no millefeuille, no gnocchi, no Thai curry, no ciabatta, no beurre noisette, no balsamic, no satay, no star anise, no panna cotta, no jasmine rice, no stir-fry, no couscous, no nori seaweed, no mascarpone.
But it does depend on what is meant by the term "ethnic". After all, those born outside this fair country can call a dinner of rare roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and sticky toffee pudding an ethnic British meal, viewing it with the same curious but wary eye as a travelling Brit might try a bowl of snow-field frog ovaries in Guangzhou.
There must be a comforting, recognisable factor to this sort of monocultural dining for the average Brit. Bread comes with butter. Gin comes with tonic. Fish and chips come with mushy peas, roast pork belly with apple sauce, faggots with onion gravy and shepherds with pie. All is as it should be.
It also comes with a backdrop of fairly loud music wafting up from the bar below. In fact the floor is vibrating with noise underfoot, like a mechanical bed. If it weren't for the white tablecloths, the wine glasses would be table-top dancing. In other words, this is a typical ethnic British Friday Night In The West End experience.
Fortunately, the executive chef Philip Owens, who previously cooked at Arts Theatre Café and the ICA, knows that the difference between boarding-school nostalgia and solid, desirable dishes with roots and substance is the mettle of the ingredients that go into their making. He has therefore committed his kitchen to seasonal ingredients, organic meats and British and independent suppliers.
Judging by a British "antipasto" platter (£9.50) – how much nicer it would be to call it a cold platter – it certainly appears that as much effort has gone into the purchasing as the plating. Furls of Woodhall ham are soft and sweet and as full-bodied as jambon de bayonne. A waft of dark, silky cured beef has a delicious beef jerky intensity next to a creamy celeriac remoulade, while the combination of buttery, delicately smoked eel, crackingly crisp bacon and the cattle-prod tang of horseradish is a truly great British mouthful. It's a mighty statement of intent, and gets dinner off to a flying start.
On the day's set menu, there is also solid craft in a huge, shallow bowl of Palestine (Jerusalem artichoke) soup, a creamy purée reinforced with a good, flavoursome stock and laced with earthy truffle oil.
The anonymously modern room with its claustrophobically low ceiling is an unlikely setting for faggots and Lancashire hotpots. Tables are small and stuck in antisocial places at the top of the stairs, and in dull corners. In fact, it's hard not to find a dull corner here.
But a towering main course of calves' liver with bacon, caramelised onions and bubble and squeak (£14.50) is a riveting combination of modern manners and working-class ethics. The lightly grilled bolsters of liver are juicy and springy to the tongue, and the B&S is suitably bubbly and squeaky, with a wee bit of everything thrown in.
Boiled brisket with dumplings is a gorgeous-looking dish, the pink slabs of meat submerged in a village pond of broth, reached by stepping stones of dumplings, potatoes and carrots. It's not as pretty as its picture, however. The meat is stringy to the bite and waddy to the chew, and the carrots are too raw. It's a beautiful broth, and a side order of purple sprouting broccoli is cooked to retain Christmas-tree colour with the right hint of crunch.
Reflecting Corney & Barrow's wineshop origins, the list is almost a magazine, with some 60 options by the glass and plenty of out-of-the-ordinary choices. A robust and gutsy 2000 Zorzettig pinot noir (£18.95) is so accustomed to Italian fegato that it's quite at home with the calves' liver.
The Union Jack gets another chance to flutter with the promise of good old baked custard with cinnamon and nutmeg. But this was a political new deal of a custard apparently; all promise and no delivery. After a good 20 minutes, the waiter is apologetic. The custard is not setting, the chef is doing a new one.
Unfortunately the intricacies of custard baking usurp the chef's good intentions once more, and effort number two never arrives.
If I were a stranger to ethnic British cuisine, this meal would have been a fair introduction. From it, I'd gather that British food is straightforward, generously flavoured and often served in towering heaps, that indigenous, seasonal ingredients such as purple sprouting broccoli are treated with respect, and that there is often a lot of bacon involved. As for the famous British puds, they must be extremely rare, precious, complex and delicate things indeed.
Philip Owens Dining Room, Corney & Barrow, 116 St Martin's Lane, London WC2, tel: 020 7655 9800. About £90 for two with wine and service. Set menus: two courses, £14, three, £16Reuse content