The Ape & Bird: Restaurant review - Polpo's Russell Norman has pushed his little plates aside for his first pub


While using the Polpo cookbook the other day, I had a moment to think about why the book was one of last year's biggest successes. Perhaps because it has an innovative spine that allows it to lie flat; perhaps because it looks beautiful and the recipes work; perhaps because it is true to one, quite specific cuisine – the Venetian cicchetti (little plates).

I've been trying to figure out why the author Russell Norman – whose small group of restaurants is largely based on the Venetian idea – has gone right outside his comfort zone with his newest venture. The absolute opposite of the tiny, cosy boltholes he created that have been hugely influential on Britain's restaurant scene, his latest is a big ol' pub.

The Ape & Bird is right on Shaftesbury Avenue by Cambridge Circus, a magnet that attracts tourists like so many iron filings. This is not a place to be stumbled upon and charmed by; it wants all-comers: four bars, a 120-seater restaurant and three floors (and, no doubt, a hefty commercial rates bill).

On a Sunday when Theatreland and Oxford Street are at their most crazed, ducking into The Ape & Bird for a bite feels like an escape, even if a few days after opening it's already so full only seats at the bar are left.

The ground-floor's main bar feels airy – high ceilings and lots of glass will do that – but tables are hugger-mugger and I have an intimate knowledge of which cheeses the American tourists to my right are enjoying. I rather like that in a pub: chance conversations and chance observations – the German visitor on my left who complains about the size of the darling little wine glass he's offered; the harried shopper who comes in, is dismayed by the beers on offer, and leaves.

On that note, there are just four beers on tap, which seems a little draconian in a boozer, but what Norman is doing here is emphasising the gastro in gastropub – and there are cocktails aplenty being shaken by the obligatorily heavily inked bar staff, as well as a perky wine list.

To the food. It being Sunday, Mr M wants a roast and I gladly devolve responsibility for it to chef director Tom Oldroyd and his team; the lamb, roasties, carrots and kale (obvs, this being the year of the kale) come with a large jug of silky gravy. But he's grown accustomed to more generous portions (hello, Thatched House; hello, Parlour) and says the meat-and-potato ratio to gravy is all wrong.

I've ordered piecemeal (piecemeal, geddit?) and my chicken, bacon and leek pie (£11), roasted beetroot with kale pesto, and cauliflower cheese (£5 each) make for a pleasingly colourful combo – all served in blue-edged enamel dishes. The pie is lovely, hunks of white meat (possibly pre-roasted to give that much flavour?) and a deeply savoury sauce from the salty bacon, all under a flaky pastry roof. The beets are lovely, a medley of red and golden, and the k-word is barely detectable in the nutty dressing. The cauliflower cheese is drenched in sauce, just how any sane person likes it, and with a blistered brown surface.

The kid, newly sworn off meat, has crab on toast and cheesy fries. The rusty-coloured topping is very generous, with more brown than white crab going on, which we don't care about, but for £9 might bother some. The dank sea vegetable garnish is left, like a tidemark on a messy beach.

The fries are forgotten in the ordering mêlée, but luckily Mr Norman – a blur of activity around the place – spots the teen's anxiety at missing her carb fix and a dish of thin chips with melty proper cheese on top arrives PDQ.

By now, any right-minded person would be dozing in front of the telly, but we have to hack through the hordes to get back home, so pudding is allowed. Mr M and I share a date pudding with ice-cream; a lovely square of gummy sponge with lashings of toffee-ish sauce, made even better (the shame) for the addition of 3in of cream lopped off the top of the kid's bannoffeebocker glory (£7 each).

This is a "pie and a pint" and "bloody Mary and a burger" place for people who don't want to stand up, get jostled or have the Premiership blaring at them. People like, well, me who have lately suffered from gastropub-enter-itis. It should go a long way towards restoring our overseas visitors' faith in pubs, too.


The Ape & Bird, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2, Tel: 020 7836 3119. £60 for two, with wine

Four more of this week's foodie moments

Scandi Sushi

Fresh, imaginative Japanese take-out from a lovely place owned by Danes in London's Covent Garden. Sticks'n'Sushi, please open a branch near our office!

Quirinale's Truffles

Lunch in Westminster with Labour MP Rachel Reeves. Impressed by chef's precise knowledge of how many shavings of truffle makes a gram.

Healthy(ish) Meatballs

To steer daughter off Subway's icky sandwiches, gave her the recipe for Polpo polpette and tomato sauce. Voilà, her own (healthier) meatball marinara.

Say Cheese

One last blow-out before the January diet (and fuel for a sprint round the sales): the heavenly provoleta, almonds and honey dish at Zoilo, off Oxford Street.

Suggested Topics
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?