The Hansom Cab, 84 Earls Court Road, London, W8
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 12 November 2011
The unique selling proposition about The Hansom Cab – an elegant Victorian boozer near Kensington High Street – is that it's been bought by Piers Morgan, the TV personality and former journalist. Mr Morgan is a curious figure: a chap who seems to revel in being disliked and to enjoy the popular consensus that he's a conceited git. By cunning and chutzpah, he has snagged himself a corner table at Planet Celebrity, advising Tony Blair, high-fiving Simon Cowell and making himself agreeable to the vice-presidents of CNN.
He bought The Hansom Cab last December, in a joint venture with his younger brother Rupert, who used to manage Guy Ritchie's ancient (est 1760) Mayfair pub The Punch Bowl, and with Tarquin Gorst, who co-owned it. (Tarquin, Piers and Rupert, eh? I can remember a time when London pubs were owned by people called Nobby, Del and Sid.) After the purchase, Morgan did lots of celebrity-schmoozing in the pub; I suspect the place is meant to attract the kind of people who'd travel miles to clap eyes on James Corden or Freddie Flintoff.
One's first impression is of cramp. It's a gastropub that's got too much bar and too little restaurant. The marble bar protrudes so far into the room that the dining tables are squashed against the wall. Eaters have to contemplate a lot of strangers' bottoms at eye-level. In the back bar, things are more stylish: lots of fancy Victorian engraved glass and black-painted walls covered with framed Jak cartoons from the Evening Standard and monochrome photographs of Parisian artisans. A porcelain pelican broods menacingly on the bar. The place looks welcoming. But you still feel you're dining in a long train carriage.
The supper menu is a stolidly English affair, full of potted this and smoked that, baked these and grilled those. It's a GK Chesterton menu and it doesn't spare the carbohydrates. "Every starter is accompanied by toast," said my daughter Sophie, "and every main course by potato." She was right. Her rillettes of pork were fine, but "the most noticeable thing about them is the pickled onion". Sophie's 16-year-old sister Clementine liked her potted duck with d'Agen prunes, but wished it was a duck-breast salad "because the flavour here is just too subtle". Angie's baked St Marcellin cheese (on toast) was deliciously runny – a more excitable version of Camembert. And what do I say about my carpaccio of fat – sorry, my 'Wheeler's of St James's Dripping on Toast'? I confess I ordered it out of sheer curiosity. Wheeler's of St James's is a world-famous fish and seafood restaurant – what would fish dripping taste like? It turned out to be five thin slices of bacon fat, with tiny traces of rasher – quite pleasing on sourdough toast but after a few minutes out of the fridge the slices begin to glisten and you start to wonder, "Why am I eating bread and dripping?".
I can describe the main courses in a few words. Clementine's rib-eye steak, ordered rare, was served medium and strangely tasteless. My veal T-bone steak was 35 per cent fat and its extremities were chewy cartilage: not nice at all. Angie's Dover sole was fresh, plainly-cooked and nicely presented, the accompanying tartare sauce perfect. Sophie's halibut was well executed and served, "but it's very ordinary," she said. "Nothing's been done to make it interesting."
The same went for the puddings. Eton Mess was rendered uninteresting by being served with the meringues un-smashed; it simply wasn't messy enough. And a free helping of vintage Stilton served beside a slice of Marco Pierre White fruitcake just looked silly, like a slice of cherry tart served with vichyssoise.
The problem with The Hansom Cab is twofold. First, the food displays no particular skill or imagination beyond the chef's ability to use a grill. It's cooked, but not transformed. And second, everything is absurdly expensive. My bread and dripping was £7.50! Halibut was £21.50, rib-eye steak £22.50, my dodgy veal was a ludicrous £28.50, as was the Dover sole. Who are they kidding? Modern London diners are becoming used to paying £30 for a seared fillet of beef in Park Lane or Mayfair – but in a tarted-up boozer in Earl's Court? Leave it, as they say, out.
A bottle of 2009 Mendoza Malbec was overpriced at £27. Our maître d', Rupert Morgan, brought the 2010, and when I complained, he knocked the cost off the bill, which was kind. A nervous chap in a suit and open-necked shirt, he was gallant with the ladies, donating a cigarette to my daughter and lending her his Zippo lighter to take outside. And our Irish waitress Laura was chatty and delightful and excellent company. I wanted to like The Hansom Cab but on its present showing the food isn't good enough, and the cooking not complex or subtle enough, to justify the absurd prices. In short, it's a restaurant that's too flipping pleased with itself. Now why would that be?
The Hansom Cab, 84 Earls Court Road, London, W8 (020-7938 3700)
£120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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