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.

7.5/10

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
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Front of House Receptionist / Receptionist

    £21K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Front of House Receptionist to provide th...

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders