Monday, 21 June 2010

The Drapers Arms, Islington

If you'd told me, as recently as say two years ago, that one day I'd find myself bound for a pub in an Islington backstreet for dinner with a handsome stranger ten years my junior who I'd met on the internet, I'd have laughed in your face. (Replace 'pub' with 'flat' and substitute 'casual sex' for 'dinner' and you'd be nearer the mark, but that's not for here). That however was before I, said handsome stranger and indeed said pub discovered the joys of Twitter, the worldwide micro-blogging phenomenon which has made meeting people and going places we might never have come to know otherwise seem like completely normal behaviour.

The young man in question was the food-writer and supper-club proprietor James Ramsden (or to give him his Twitter sobriquet, @jteramsden) and the pub, The Drapers Arms or @drapersarms. Brought together on Twitter through our shared foodie leanings, James and I had built up something of a rapport in recent months and decided to take the plunge and make our virtual acquaintance actual. We chose to do so at The Drapers Arms on the strength of James's being a local and my having been charmed by the proprietors' passionate and eloquent 140-character musings about food and wine, and so it was that on the eve of my 34th birthday I came to be making this once-unimaginable assignation.

Despite our meeting being entirely platonic, I had all the nerves one would expect of a blind date, but James turned out to be as easy-going and charming off-line as on- so any initial awkwardness was swiftly dispelled. The Drapers Arms certainly offers very attractive surroundings to meet in; the pub is an unfussily but sensitively tarted up old boozer with high ceilings, stripped wood floors and blackboards announcing the day's menu highlights. There are some nice nods to interior design fashionability, among them the apple green-painted bar and a wall of bookshelves holding Penguin Classics. Outside is a really lovely trellis-walled garden with abundant bench seating and zinc topped tables, and as it was a pleasantly mild evening we chose to eat here.

Anyone who remembers the dreadful fashion in fine dining restaurants a couple of years back for giving technically-elaborate dishes one word menu titles might fear, on first seeing The Drapers Arms' menu, that the trend was making an unwelcome comeback in N1. Their fear would be misplaced though as the descriptions, while brief, in fact list everything that you will find on the plate, such is the beautiful simplicity of the food on offer.

Thus, our starters of 'hot crispy Old Spot pork, chicory, buttermilk & mustard' and 'smoked eel, bacon, pea shoots & chives' and our mains of 'poached sea trout, hot buttered samphire' and 'grilled quail, pearl barley, chickpeas mint & cucumber' were lovely, un-fancified platefuls of just those ingredients. Our starters were particularly good, with some nice touches. The buttermilk and mustard had been emulsified to make a smooth, punchy dressing mellow enough to flatter the fat dice of pork and shattering shards of crackling; the bacon accompanying the eel was presented as moreish half-inch lardons.

The stand-out dish of the whole meal was my quail; generously but not excessively seasoned, it was a plump, moist little delight so tasty that the carcass was torn apart and bones chewed to strip every last shred of flesh. The accompanying silky mix of barley 'n' beans was fresh-tasting and filling. The only very minor disappointment was James's sea trout, which he felt was a little over-cooked. Served cold with a generous helping of hot samphire it was nonetheless as saltily, satisfyingly bracing as a windy afternoon on Poole Quay.

Too full for puds, we chose instead a glass of Banyuls which was very generously offered on the house; I say generously but perhaps it was reward for our still being upright having already made serious inroads into the mostly-Old World, small producer-biased wine list. We'd started off with a bright, summery 2008 Picpoul de Pinet (which James had very sweetly remembered, from our online oeno-chat, that I'm a fan of), followed it up with a St Cosme from the same year (my favourite, a ballsy, rich 100% Syrah) and then just for good measure seen off a bottle of a light, berry-and-cherry ripe Sangiovese. Before you reach for the Yellow Pages to find me my nearest branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, let me assure you that three-bottle dinners are as rare these days as, well, meeting young men I've met on the internet for blind dates.

As the final cherry on a cake already made up of great company, super food, splendid wine and very agreeable surroundings, the service was absolutely perfect; a friendly, entirely informal vibe underpins a very evident sense of professionalism and care from a young, trendy team. It doesn't hurt of course that the boys are gorgeous (I think the hunky monkey in the checked shirt in the photo looks like a hotter Prince William) as I do find that a handsome staff aids the digestion magnificently. James would I'm sure not want me to neglect to mention too the brace of beautiful, welcoming girls. The bill was completely unscary; service included it came to about £50 each. A couple enjoying the same quantity of food but a normal volume of wine would be unlikely to rack up half that.

To anyone wishing to cavil that I'm being contradictory heaping such praise on a gastropub when I've been so critical of the genre in the past, I would say that I don't see (and I don't think the proprietors see) The Drapers Arms as being a 'gastropub' with all the aspiration to culinary fanciness that that implies. This is just that loveliest of British things - a great local pub, serving lovely and lovingly-prepared food, which just happens to be as good as you might expect to find in fancier places charging twice as much.

I liked The Drapers Arms - and the delightful Mr Ramsden - very much indeed. Both, if they'll have me, will be getting a second visit.

The Drapers Arms, 44 Barnsbury Street, Islington, London N1 1ER Tel: 020 7619 0348 Twitter: @drapersarms 

Drapers Arms on Urbanspoon 

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