I don't like the slightly rickety iron spiral staircase that leads up to the upstairs dining-room. I don't like the wall of noise that shoots up said staircase from the crowded bar downstairs like hot steam from a kitchen exhaust fan. And I don't like the fact that I was asked to turn up for dinner at half past six and leave by nine, only to be told at 8.45pm that I could stay as long as I liked.
I am hoping to find more I don't like about The Princess, because I have a sneaking feeling I am going to adore her, and I need some balance.
What I like is that the Australian owners, Zim Sutton and Andrew Veevers (of The Easton in Clerkenwell), have resisted the urge to turn the upstairs dining-room of the former Princess Royal into a pretend restaurant rather than a pub dining-room.
Mind you it's a nifty pub dining-room. A wall of swirly-whirly pink and burgundy Florence Broadhurst wallpaper adds urban chic; while crystal light fittings, extremely roomy, reclaimed teak and leather chairs, sleek cutlery, and paper-thin Riedel water and wine glasses are all very grown-up.
Chef Charles Landrick's fiercely seasonal menu is immensely likeable, with its easy Mediterranean combination of tastes and textures, no-nonsense descriptions and down-to-earth value. This is food you want to fall upon and devour on the spot: artichoke, pea and saffron tagine with bulgur wheat tabbouleh; organic roast cinnamon chicken with zucchini salad; baked goat's curd cheesecake with cardamom apricots.
What's more, it's as good as it sounds. Three seared king scallops with harissa and lemon rocket (£6.50) could have been just another me-too bistro dish if the scallops weren't so spanking fresh and wham-bam cooked (scorchy outside, wobbly within), and if the fiery home-made harissa wasn't so deliciously fruity. It doesn't take a genius to pile crushed white alubias beans on to grilled seeded bread and place a couple of pan-fried sardine fillets on top (£5.50) either, but I can think of plenty of people who would make hard work of it.
Actually, I have decided I like the noise coming up from below, which links the two floors and makes it one big, happy pub. It's not as hellishly loud as it is at The Fox just down the road, just loud enough to keep the oldies away.
As if to prove my point, the dining room fills with small groups of thirtysomethings, all trainers and T-shirts, summer frocks and bare legs. Low-slung waitresses bring toasty chunks of bread and fresh butter, candles glow, and the light slowly fades outside the big open windows.
Next come two of the simplest and best main courses I've seen in a long time. A grilled, aged, rib eye on the bone (£14.95) is deep-flavoured and masterfully cooked. It's big but not too big due to the fact that some clever person has cleaved the bone itself in half, and the meat has real presence and character. A pat of butter mixed with Picos, a Spanish blue cheese, kicks things along nicely, and I am in total awe of the deeply crisp, deeply golden roast spuds. Respect. A side dish of peas tossed with fresh white cheese and mint (£3.50) only adds to my happiness.
They're not scared of crispness in this kitchen. A generous ironing board of pan-fried wild sea bass fillet (£13.95) comes with its handsome skin as crunchy as a potato crisp, and its white flesh firm yet moist. It is served simply with a sunny wedge of lemon and a fresh, bright salad of broad beans, green beans, olives and halved new potatoes; nothing more, and nothing less, than you would want with a god piece of fish.
Only something like a Pinot Noir could cope with both fish and steak, and there just so happen to be several Pinot Noir options on the varied, mainly French/Italian list. Passing over the likes of a Clos de Vougeot 1999 at £78, I settle for a sensible New Zealand 2004 St Clair Rapaura, which for £25 tastes of gamey, black cherries.
Can the Princess keep up the charm all night? A platter of two Spanish cheeses with thyme honey and bread (£6.95) delivers enough for a table of four. A well-crafted hot chocolate pudding (£4.95) is crusty without and molten chocolate lava within, with a nicely boozy sherry and raisin ice cream to the side.
I hope its not just because I am Australian that I respond so readily to this democratic mix of gung-ho cooking, serious wine and informal professionalism. Even if it is, I have been here long enough to know that What This Country Needs is more Princesses.
Just don't look at the high score and go there all dressed up to the nines, expecting bowing and scraping and valet parking. That's not going to happen. Instead, go for a great kitchen doing desirable food in a cool, lively setting.
To add to the fairytale ending, the table is cleared and the bill arrives. With no main courses over £15, the pain is minimal. And there, left on the table, is a single, forgotten pea. So it is a real Princess after all. I knew it. *
16 The Princess 76 Paul Street, London EC2, tel: 020 7729 9270. Lunch served Sun-Fri; Dinner served Mon-Sat. Around £85 for two, including drinks and service.
Second helpings: Other right royal pubs
King's Arms Market Square, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, tel: 01451 830 364 This 500-year-old coaching inn once provided lodging for Charles I. These days, it's mainly full of appreciative locals. Beer drinkers head for the downstairs pub, while wine fanciers are well served by the wine wall in the upstairs dining room. The daily changing blackboard menu draws on influences from across Europe in dishes such as grilled sardines with feta, spinach and pine nuts, and confit duck with figs.
The Earl Spencer 260-262 Merton Road, London SW18, tel: 020 8870 9244 From the same stable as the much awarded Havelock Arms in Hammersmith, The Earl Spencer is no slouch itself, having won the Evening Standard Pub of the Year Award in 2003. The daily changing menu is a clever upgrading of British pub standards: old-fashioned pork terrine with apple chutney, beer-battered haddock and chips, and pan-fried scallops with smoked bacon and rocket.
Queen's Head Hotel Townhead, Troutbeck, Cumbria, tel: 01539 432 174 This 17th-century coaching inn still regularly hosts Troutbeck's annual mayor-making ceremony, which dates back to Elizabethan times. While the feel is all ancient flag-stone floors, oak beams and log fires, the food is more contemporary. Start with toasted brioche with chicken livers and poached egg, go on to crisp belly pork with black pudding, and finish on lavender-infused crème brulée.
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