Monday, 22 March 2010

Canton Arms, Stockwell

I’ve never been a fan of gastropubs. The concept of fancy, restaurant-standard nosh being served in the informal environs of a local boozer has always felt uncomfortable to me, an unwelcome example of two perfectly serviceable and separate entities encroaching on each other’s purpose - like listening to the radio on your television, or sending written messages via the telephone. As a result, I was less excited than others might be at the news that my local boozer, the recently-closed and sorely-missed Canton Arms in Stockwell, had been reborn not just as a gastropub, but as one where the food was attracting rave reviews from the big critics.

The only gastropub (and God, even that clunking neologism of a noun jars with me) I’ve ever really liked is the Anchor & Hope behind Waterloo Station. I was impressed by the absence of the pretension which seemed to afflict most others of its type, as well as by the fantastic quality and value of the food; I still go misty-eyed and drool a little when I think of the rabbit terrine I once had there. It softened the blow, therefore, to hear that the lady now in charge at Canton Arms is one Trish Hilferty – nope, I’d never heard of her, but Fay Maschler had which is fine by me – who once presided over the hot-plate at the Anchor & Hope (and ergo may well have been responsible for that terrine). Both having a day off last Friday, Alyn and I wandered round there - it takes a whole, ooh, minute from my flat – to try out a spot of lunch.

Pleasingly, the change of ownership hasn’t led to much of a change of decor. What before was a really nice, comfortable, friendly neighbourhood pub appears to have been left pretty much untouched, except that the back bit where there used to be cosy battered old sofas and a few tables for eating at now has only the latter, and has had a fresh lick of deep red paint to make it look vaguely restauranty. It’s a nice space to eat in; it’s not trying too hard to impress, tables are well-spaced and the high windows let in plenty of natural light. A decent number of other tables were occupied despite the fairly late hour, although interestingly the pub itself was otherwise deserted.

We were directed by a very friendly chap at the bar to a roomy corner table, and within a couple of minutes an equally smiley waitress brought tap water and good bread and butter. So far, so good. But then we looked at the menu, and things started to go downhill. It was so brief, and most of the dishes so insubstantial, that I wondered at first if we had been given a list of tapas. But no, the slip of paper was clearly headed ‘Lunch’ and I reproduce it in its entirety here:

Now, call me old-fashioned – and many do – but on a lunch menu in a pub gastro or otherwise, shouldn’t there be at least one failsafe dish such as a steak, pie or stew? To offer only two main dishes – that boring, bistro staple ‘omlette’ [sic] and lemon sole – and four tapas/starters smacks of a kitchen that has decided to serve what it wants to serve, and not what lunchtime customers might actually want. All the dishes sounded perfectly nice in their own right, but to our eyes that ultra-curt list did not a cohesive menu make. When I mentioned to the aforementioned friendly chap at the bar that it might have been welcome to see, say, a steak on the menu, I was told entirely uselessly that they had had onglet earlier in the week.

Given that we were hungry, and were going to the flicks in a couple of hours, we decided to stay put and try to cobble together a lunch out of what little was on offer. We ordered all of the first four dishes, plus a green salad, and a bottle of crisp, floral Le Vele 2006 Verdicchio to wash it all down with. To give it its due, the food was mostly good. The ‘Spanish ham’ – whether it was jabugo, or iberico, or pata negra, I couldn’t tell you, nor how many jotas it had; as far as the menu writer cared it was just ‘Spanish ham’ – was lovely, melt-in-the-mouth stuff and went very nicely when chewed with a mouthful of the perfectly fine omelette. The devilled lamb’s kidneys were superb, full of robust flavour enhanced by the tangy liquor they bathed in; the accompanying ‘toast’ had no crunch or notable flavour but at least absorbed the tasty juices.

Less successful was the cuttlefish, which was over-cooked, swimming in too much of the intensely powerful ink and not a patch on the cuttlefish dish I enjoyed recently at Rivington. Sauted potatoes were, without forewarning, substituted for the chips which should have come with the omelette; I don’t mind things being substituted provided that a) I’m told about it and b) the replacement item is good. Neither was the case here, and when I mentioned this to the waiter it was met with indifference. It comes to something when the best thing we ate, and the only dish to really stand out, was the green salad, which was a generous mound of super-fresh peppery leaves dressed in a perfect quantity of extremely good vinaigrette.

Overall, we were both entirely underwhelmed by the experience. The food really was nothing special – omelette, for God’s sake, is fine for Cafe Rouge, but in a gastropub? – if reasonably enough priced; our bill came to comfortably under fifty quid even including that nice bottle of wine. Yes, service was mostly lovely, but undermined by the staff’s incredulous response to anything other than fulsome praise; perhaps the galaxy of stars bestowed by Jay and Fay has gone to their heads already. I want this to be as good as the real critics believe it to be, because who wouldn’t want a stonkingly good gastrogaff practically on their doorstep? Even given my antipathy to them, I certainly would. But until I see evidence to the contrary – and I’ll certainly give Canton Arms a second shot – I remain to be convinced that I do.

Canton Arms, 177 South Lambeth Road, London SW8 1XP Tel: 020 7582 8710 No website. Canton Arms on Urbanspoon

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