So comforting, warm and fun is the Scolt Head that I am compelled to return a month after my initial visit. And there, perched at the bar in a rugby shirt, just as he was on the first occasion, is a puce-faced, grey-bearded gentleman in possession of the biggest and lowest-hanging paunch I have ever seen. He drank three pints of IPA during the course of my first visit, and five this time. All have been consumed from atop the same stool, and at no time has he veered from calm civility.
Rugby Man strikes me as a warrior from a bygone age, so incongruous is he with his surroundings. This is a remorselessly yuppie gastropub, full of Hoxtonites and Hackneyists who work in advertising, sport moustaches, support Arsenal and have a mate with a creative "space" in Dalston. The wooden interior, muddy-brown brickwork and vast ceilings are perfect consolation for dark evenings, and despite the thrusting clientele, convey a quiet nobility. The pub is the locus of De Beauvoir Town, that affluent portion of north London's historic Hackney unblemished by grime and skullduggery; indeed, the small beer garden outside, at the apex of two roads, feels like a neighbourhood viewing station.
Siblings Richard and Rosie Haines converted the former Sussex Arms in 2006, naming it after a bird sanctuary off the Norfolk coast, despite their own childhoods in the locality. They have installed a small dining-room adjacent to the main bar, which seats around 40, and employed glinty-toothed staff who make you feel most cared for. Their menus are short (four starters, four to six mains, and five desserts), very seasonal, reasonably priced and unfussy. Simplicity is the motif.
Now, contrary to conventional wisdom, simple dishes are harder to get right than complex ones, because there is no hiding place: each flavour has to make a strong contribution. Here, they do.
The honey-roasted walnuts with juicy strips of beetroot and crumbling goat's cheese salad (£5) has a thick, sweet vinaigrette, though it is outdone by the superb, warm balsamic pigeon and bacon salad. This works so well – with crisp, slender lardons and the sweetness of the balsamic getting the best out of a tender bird – that it seems a steal at £5.50.
A disgraceful lack of vegetarian main options on my first visit is corrected to the tune of one lonely dish the second time, but as it happens, the four of us are meat-eaters anyway. A grilled Scotch ribeye, with chips, watercress and sautéed mushroom (£15) needs the Béarnaise sauce to bring it to life, but what a life it is: the thickly cut chips and medium-rare steak have our eyeballs rolling back towards Highbury. The pan-fried sea bass with crushed potatoes, beans and caper butter (£12) is excellent, the fish given a tough, crispy skin against a muscular body; while the roast beef with roast potatoes, carrots, greens, Yorkshire pudding, horseradish and gravy (£13.50) is less distinguished from ordinary pub fare, though not bad at all.
But the star of the second course is the cheapest option: a cheeseburger with salad and chips (£9) that should send Ronald McDonald back to his drawing board. So tender is the beef, and so cleverly toasted the buns, adorned with a strip of smoky bacon and crunchy, peppery rocket, that tour guides for the area would be remiss not to mention it.
The triumph in not burdening these dishes with excessive fat has the pleasant consequence of leaving room for dessert. The white-chocolate cheesecake with raspberry coulis is sumptuous, flakes of Milky Bar goodness and a strong cocoa-butter aroma readying the palate for a crash of berry juice. The desserts are all £5, bar Neal's Yard cheeses with biscuits and chutney (£6) and a soft, leaky, dark-chocolate fondant with clotted cream (£5.50) that has me raising my plate to my mouth to claim any remnants.
As I finish writing the above, I ring the pub to confirm that the excellent house red, sourced from the merchants Barton Brownsdon & Sadler, was indeed a 2009 Terres d'Orb (35 per cent Merlot, 35 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 per cent Carignan, 10 per cent Grenache, and a snip at £13.50). The duty manager, Alex Cookman, is exceptionally polite and patient with me. I describe Rugby Man and ask whether he is there. "I know who you mean but wouldn't want to..." Tell a journalist, basically. The perfect answer. They look after you at the Scolt Head.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The Scolt Head, 107A Culford Road, London N1, tel: 020 7254 3965. Lunch and dinner daily. About £115 for four, including a bottle of wine
The Sands End
135 Stephendale Road, London SW6, tel: 020 7731 7823
Brave the dodgy location (and the Prince Harry-style clientele) and this very friendly gastropub will reward you with some delicious food
The Horsebridge, Sea Wall, Whitstable, Kent, tel: 01227 272 005
It may look like an old man's boozer, but the first-floor dining-room has a wonderful location overlooking the sea, and makes impressive use of good local produce, especially fish
Near Tarbert, Argyll, tel: 01880 770 223
On a single-track road miles from anywhere, this friendly inn is worth a long drive. Its sensitive cuisine gives top-quality ingredients the chance to shine
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.com