There is nothing quite so soothing as a pint taken on a wooden bench outside your local pub at the end of the day. It's the British equivalent of a European hanging out at his local café over an espresso or an apéritif. But my local pub is filled to bursting inside and overrun outside with Italians, Germans and Spaniards, all enjoying a genuine London pub experience on their easyJet weekend in our capital city. They may well be here because they can't get into their local cafés, beer halls and tavernas because of all the bloody easyJet English, but where does that leave me? Without a pub, a café, a beer hall or a taverna, that's where.
So I quite like finding other pubs that I can pretend are my local. This week, it's the Marquess Tavern - a right old charmer with a traditional horseshoe bar, a selection of Young's ales, ubiquitous shabby-chic Chesterfields, and a heavy investment in single malts. Sure enough, light streams in through the window, and there is a lone man at the bar with a pint and a cryptic crossword.
To the rear is the kind of room in which you could imagine staging tea dances in the 1950s: a light-filled, white-walled space with pilasters, large mirrors and heaters coiled against the wall in readiness for winter. Chairs, tables and floors are dark, solid wood, and a curvaceous brass chandelier hovering above imparts just a hint of poshness. Above it, the ceiling rises dramatically, then pulls itself together into an ornate skylight, adding to the period charm.
The only real embellishment is in the number of blackboards proclaiming wine lists and a daily menu, startling in its simplicity. There is sirloin with bubble and squeak, whole lemon sole, and treacle tart. This is no gastropub-pretending-to- be-a-restaurant menu with foie gras parfait, risotto, chorizo sausage and panna cotta. Instead, it is just a lovely, straightforward, no-mucking-about British pub menu. As such, it is very, very enticing.
The people behind the blackboard are Huw Gott and Will Beckett, of The Redchurch Bar and Café and the popular tequila bar Green & Red. To live up to their aim of creating a public house "the way they used to be", they have installed head chef Paul Hayes, who has cooked at that temple to all things British, seasonal and un-mucked-about-with: St John. Hayes has sought out some top local Islington suppliers - such as fishmonger Steve Hatt, Elliott's butchers and Patricia Michelson's La Fromagerie - to make sure the simplicity is more than skin-deep.
It is not as easy for the wine list to be so proudly British, but it tries, with a Chapel Down Epoch 1 red from Kent, and the excellent Nyetimber Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Brut 99 from Sussex. The Chapel Down Pinot Blanc 2004 (£22) is assertive and acidic enough, however, to drive me south to New Zealand for a Matua Valley 2005 Pinot Noir (£19.50) that is very light, delicate and balanced.
Ordering the food, the three of us sound as if we are reciting a shopping list. Sardines and tomatoes (on toast); pea and mint (soup); oh, and don't forget the (devilled) kidneys. The trouble is, the food comes back as a shopping list as well - two fresh sardines (£5) are plonked on a thick wedge of dry toast with a tomato; three kidneys (£6.50), ditto. Pea and mint soup (£5) starts off salty, but settles down into an honest, hearty, sludgy soup, instead of a gussied up, big-night-out purée.
A main course of ham, mash and parsley sauce (£11) is straight out of Mum's kitchen. She could get away with the bland white sauce and the slightly gummy mash if the ham were juicy and brightly flavoured, but instead it is dry and dull. A dish of green salad (£3) is doubly disappointing, the leaves tired, floppy and under-dressed.
Floured and pan-fried, a decent-sized whole lemon sole is good value for £13, served with a swag of boiled jersey royals and a chunky cucumber salad. To finish, a big bowl of rice pudding and apple jam (£5.50) is down-home comfort food that only just rises above being milky rice topped with a spoonful of apple purée.
What is missing in most of these dishes is that touch of the inspired that gives you more than you bargained for. Everything, once touched by human hands, seems reduced to the ordinary instead of being lifted to the extraordinary - be it produce, cooking or presentation. It's a bit... boring.
On the up side, the staff are as nice as pie, a gluten intolerance is dealt with gracefully and without fuss, the wine list is more interesting than most, and the whole place is low-key and relaxed, if noisy.
But it's a pub, after all, and that's what we want from a pub: a noisy, unpretentious space in which we can stop for a pint or stay for a decent meal presented without fuss or bother in a uniquely British manner. The Marquess definitely has the right bones and the right ambitions. Now it just needs a touch of greatness, and it will be as hard to get into as my local local.
12/20 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 Marquess Tavern, 32 Canonbury Street, London N1, tel: 020 7354 2975
Lunch and dinner served daily. Dinner around £75 for two, including wine and service.
Second helpings: Some more pubs with panache
Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peter's Street, London N1, tel: 020 7359 3066 The all-organic Duke of Cambridge serves up pub grub with a conscience, from chicken liver parfait and bream to fennel à la Greque. It also stocks organic beers, lagers and wines.
Sir Charles Napier
Sprigg's Alley, Chinnor, Oxfordshire, tel: 01494 483011 This charming converted inn in the Chiltern Hills boasts a helipad, a beautiful garden and striking statues by Michael Cooper. The seasonally driven menu runs to pan-fried mackerel and coriander-crusted venison.
Lords of the Manor
Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, tel: 01451 820243 Set in a 17th-century former rectory in the heart of the Cotswolds, this is one of Britain's prettiest country house hotels. Adding to the appeal is chef Les Rennie's red mullet with tomato sorbet, and pistachio soufflé.
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