Before the Pig and Butcher turned up, there was a pub on Liverpool Road called the Islington Tap. It was rather good, with decent ales, friendly staff and an inoffensive clientele. But on its main window was a strip of verbs instructing potential customers on what to do: "Eat. Drink. Chat. Party. Laugh."
The Tap is no more, and quite why I couldn't begin to guess. But two things always struck me about its rules. First, it was a breach of the unspoken contract between publican and patrons – come into my house, pay your way and do as you please, within reason – that made English public houses the envy of the world; and second, it was the inevitable consequence of a new puritanism and health zealotry in which emissaries of the State tell us not to smoke, drink excessively, or eat the wrong kind of quinoa. It was as if the Tap had taken those warnings now on cigarette packets, and applied them to a pub setting.
In direct, pleasing and probably intentional contrast, its successor advertises no such instructions. And that it is a magnificent public house – from the people behind the Princess of Shoreditch and the Lady Ottoline, with excellent cocktails and a reasonable wine list – is doubtless related.
A short, sublime menu full of meat butchered on site completes the victory. There are six starters, eight mains, four desserts and a cheese board.
To start, Matt gets the monkfish scampi and aioli (£6.95), Charlie gets the red and white endive with home-cured bacon and blood pudding (£8.95), and I get the goose rillettes with cornichons and toast (£5.95). It is a triple triumph.
The batter on the monkfish is a little too greasy, and couldn't be described as light; but the fish inside is moist and muscular and stands up well to the aioli, whose quotient of garlic could be fatal to a post-dinner smooch. The endives, meanwhile, are crisp, the bacon comes in giant salty lardons, and the blood pudding has a very rich but not bullying flavour. And my goose rillettes are ideal: neither completely smooth nor so rough as to demand prolonged chewing. The cornichons are wrinkled and pungent. The only letdown is the plain brown toast, being an inch deep, which is too thick for the rillettes, and hogs precious space in our stomachs.
Moving on to mains, and the 28-day-aged Herefordshire sirloin comes medium-cooked rather than medium-rare, as Matt had ordered. In not sending it back, he shows the kind of grace and flexibility that will be required when he is my best man next year, and I his. In any case, the steak is almost unimprovably delicious; and the double-dipped chips come with an excellent parsley sauce whose constituents – parsley, spring onions, cornichons, capers, and Dijon – culminate in a hummus-like texture. The steak knife, by Tramontina, is basically a machete, as if the kitchen suspect the cow could spring back to life.
My Chart Farm venison haunch comes with soused cabbage and beetroot (£15.50), and Charlie's chunky peperonata (£11.50) has a pungent and smooth goat's curd. Where the steak, like the monkfish starter, is intimidatingly big, these two dishes are compact.
Poor Matt, who had both those larger dishes, now orders a rhubarb-and-apple crumble with vanilla ice-cream (£5.95), a giant sugar boat which, though expertly done, is just too much to digest.
My greedy gob has no such problems with an exquisite chocolate mousse with hazelnut praline (£5.95), so fabulous I could have three. But there is a problem with the accompanying cherry ice-cream – and twice over. First, it doesn't turn up and the kitchen has to be reminded. Then what arrives is a spherical pink glacier devoid of cherry flavour. This is annoying and disappointing respectively. But our waitress is so utterly charming that the sighs and sorrow soon pass.
Very avoidable mistakes (overcooking the steak; the ultra-chunky bread; the cherry ice-cream travesty) means the 9/10 I want to give this place, and which will probably be warranted on your visit, just can't be justified. I have to mark the meal I had. So it's the score below and my gracious thanks to a pub with the right degree of temerity: no silly instructions on the windows; but panache and not-far-off-perfection inside.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
The Pig and Butcher, 80 Liverpool Road, London N1, tel: 020 7226 8304. Dinner, Mon-Weds; lunch and dinner,Thurs-Sun. About £110 for three, including wine
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