"You really shouldn't do that." I don't often get told off by someone sat at the next table while in the middle of a restaurant review, so this was something new. "It's bad for your digestion. And it's rude," she added. What is? "Writing at the table." Lord save us from young single mums out on their birthday. Their one opportunity to let their hair down, and what happens? They can't give up their day job.
"I have taught my three children to behave properly at the table and that means no writing and no drawing." She looked at my wife. "You should do something about him."
I am sure Birthday Girl's kids will grow up to be nice people with efficient digestive systems. They may not, however, grow up to be restaurant critics. My memory being what it is, I have to make notes and do the odd sketch as an aide-mémoire. This is probably overkill tonight, as The Horseshoe, a Hampstead pub/diner/microbrewery recently opened by Australian Jasper Cuppaidge, seems to be a straightforward formula in a simple enough space.
What was The Three Horseshoes, a pub in the JD Wetherspoon group, has been given a new lease of life, a lick of white paint, and split-level dining floors at the end of a pleasingly long bar and open kitchen. Tables, chairs and floors are all wood, a theme carried on by the kitchen serving much of the fare on plank-like, wooden steak platters.
The crowd seems mainly local, the oldies in early and the youngies on the late shift. Pride of the place is the house-brewed McLaughlin's beer, named after the North Queensland brewery once owned by Cuppaidge's grandfather. I try a pint of the pale, golden McLaughlin's Summer, but being a lager-loving Australian (and a bitter disappointment to my real-ale chums) I find it a bit girly.
The menu, however, is more blokey: full of good old pub grub such as twice-cooked belly pork with black pudding and McLaughlin's cod and chips, which presumably uses the beer in the batter.
Chef Adam Penney shows his adventurous side in a blatantly modern combination of Blythburgh Farm ham hock, watermelon and Italian mustard fruits (£5.95). Charry, caramelised chunks of hock squat on a haystack of wilted rocket and snappy green beans, surrounded by a toss of watermelon cubes, chopped mustard fruits and mossy green basil oil. It's a dish that is crisp, sticky, syrupy and Christmassy all in one.
Then it's back to basics with a pyre of crisp, lightly golden floured and fried whitebait (£5.50) simply tossed with parsley and dusted with paprika. With their neat crisp crunch, and good belt of salty flavour, they make a great snack-with-a-drink if you toss them down whole. One old fellow across the room tops and tails each little blighter as if they are green beans, which seems like a waste of good eating time to me, but each to their own.
For someone with beer in his veins and a microbrewery in the basement, Cuppaidge is no slouch at putting a wine list together. This one is a beauty - fairly priced, with lots of New World personality. A 2004 Seresin Leah Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Marlborough region justifies its £32 price tag by being ripe, velvety and intense.
The Horseshoe's "farm to fork" sourcing policy includes Suffolk's fine-grained Red Poll beef and fish direct from the Cornish coast. A slab of the roasted and rested rib (£12.50) is gorgeously crusty on the outside, pink and juicy within, and rustically served on a wooden board with a kindling stack of fat chips, a clutch of roasted cherry toms and home-made horseradish cream. The jus, sadly, has run off into the drainage channel around the edge.
I also miss the logic of serving a cold dish of fried and marinated grey mullet (£9.75) on a wooden steak platter, but what the hell. It's a deconstructed escabeche with individual plops of vinegared onions and carrots, crushed avocado and, strangely, soured cream. The fish lacks the vinegary punch of a good sousing, but it's all fresh and happy.
It's a bloody noisy place, especially with the ear-splitting shrieks from Birthday Girl's table, but the level drops to a dull roar after she finally weaves off home, and I feel free to write up a peach crumble (£5.50). It's low on finesse but high on mumsiness, with an avalanche of crunch and sensationally creamy custard. Another wooden plank bears a cargo of onion jam, mustard fruits, oat biscuits and two generous wedges of cheese - a well-kept Stilton and a nutty Montgomery cheddar (£6.50).
Places such as The Horseshoe remind me why gastropubs were such a good idea in the first place. At one point, they were all becoming a bit too lookalike and cookalike, but now they are starting to develop individual characters and personalities.
This one is refreshingly direct and open in its approach. It's all about good produce, careful sourcing, making beer, and keeping the food simple but interesting. Serves are big, prices are decent and everything is visible, uncluttered and forthright. And if that means some of my fellow diners are just as forthright, then so be it. s
The Horsehoe, 28 Heath Street, London NW3, tel: 020 7431 7206. Lunch and dinner served daily. Around £70 for two, including drinks and service
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
Second helpings: other equestrian restaurants
Coach and Horses 26 Ray Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7278 8990 One of the last Clerkenwell boozers to go gastro, this backstreet charmer was Time Out's best gastropub in 2004. Trot in for good British grub such as brawn terrine, Old Spot pork chop and rhubarb fool.
Three Horseshoes High Street, Madingley, Cambridgeshire, tel: 01954 210 221 A pretty thatched inn a few miles from Cambridge, Three Horseshoes does a galloping trade in both bustling bar and conservatory dining-room. An Italianate menu runs from seafood risotto to liver and borlotti beans.
Horse & Trumpet Medbourne, Leicestershire, tel: 01858 565 000 What stands out here is the assured, refined cooking of chef David Lennox. The punters rave about his sea bass with cockles and scallops, and the Valrhona chocolate fondant.Reuse content