The cosy Albion serves traditional pub grub in the heart of London. Surely nothing could go wrong...
The Albion, 10 Thornhill Road, London N1, tel: 020 7607 7450
Sunday 05 April 2009
The pies of the day are announced on a blackboard in an ornate gilt frame worthy of a Stubbs, and the menu is full of family favourites, such as potted shrimps, game pie and slow-roast pork hock, as well as bar snacks such as chip butties and pork crackling. By rights, it should be nestled in a valley, smoke puffing from chimney, tractor in the car park. Instead, it's in the backstreets of Islington, albeit with a rear garden for al-fresco dining.
The former Sands End chef Liam Kirwan recently took over the stoves of The Albion public house and garden from owner Richard Turner, who is now ensconced in sister restaurant The Old Bear in Cobham, Surrey. For a man who has cooked with Rowley Leigh, Jeremy Lee and The Gun's Scott Wade, I am expecting Kirwan to turn out no-fuss, well-crafted British food, the sort of non-interventionist cooking that makes you wonder why the French feel they have to do so much to their food before they eat it.
A menu description as bald as "Mushrooms on toast £5.50" has become commonplace since the pioneering St John restaurant of Clerkenwell removed all flowery clichés from the British menu. There, it could mean garlic-infused wild mushrooms flashed in butter and tipped over house-baked brioche. Here, it is mushrooms on toast, and I mean bog-ordinary, bland, tasteless button mushrooms, like the ones Jamie Oliver forbids us to use in any of his mushroom recipes or, he threatens, "I'll come and get you." Add white-bread toast and a creamy, gluggy sauce, and I can't see the point in either serving it or eating it.
A second starter of fluffy smoked-eel paté on slightly sweet wheaten toast (£7.50) has more flavour, with a caper relish giving it some gumption, but so far, the kitchen skills are not up to those of the menu writer. Table service is scattery and ingénue, with one waiter turning up with main courses only to announce "The pie for the man and the fish cakes for the woman," sending the woman into mild hysterics.
The man's Dexter beef pie with laverbread (Welsh seaweed) and oyster (£15.50) is served in a little cast-iron pot, topped with a flat, thin, pastry lid that is more duff than puff. Another pot holds decent mash and shredded spring greens, but the pie is more reminiscent of a bowl of gravy with a single oyster and a few chunks of tender meat. The woman's three Arbroath smokie fishcakes (£12.50) are topped with a good, runny duck egg, fried bacon and a swish of dark-green pea purée. The taste of haddock gets lost in the process, with little left but potato, smoke and a rogue flavour I can't identify that throws the whole thing out of whack.
Damn it, I can't even turn to the wine for solace. The list reads well, but a 2005 Michelot Bourgogne (£30.50) falls flat when matched against thin gravy and smoke. And I know sticky toffee pudding (£5.50) is designed to be stodgy, but this one sinks to a new level; a dense slab of goo topped with a scoop of icy ice-cream.
The gastropub is the only hope we have for civilised, democratic dining in this country, taking the substandard pubby stodge we grew up with and reinvigorating it with seasonal produce, fresh ideas and fair prices. Tonight, sadly, has been a step backwards rather than forwards. It will matter little to the hordes who just want to sit in the garden and drink beer – but it should.
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
The Albion, 10 Thornhill Road, London N1, tel: 020 7607 7450. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £85 for two, including wine and service
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