There are enough fancy ways to dine in London to fill your fancy pants several times over. You have 12-course tasting menus and sprawling art deco palaces and molecular gastronomy and precise fine dining and sharing concepts and foraged ingredients and organic gluten-free superfoods and authentic indigenous cuisines from previously undiscovered nations. But sometimes you just want a nice pub dinner.
And you’re in luck, because British pub food has never been so good. Whatever you feel about gentrification, it sure gives you a lot of options for lunch. Take Stepney, which for the five years I’ve lived there has remained steadfastly free of anything that might facilitate fun or joy or happiness: now it’s got a great little pub, The Horn of Plenty, which serves a cracking Sunday roast. It even extends to the provinces: last weekend I was served a very respectable steak and kidney pie in The Tudor Close, a local gastropub in a tiny town called Ferring on the South coast. A few years ago you wouldn’t have fed that pie to your dog, for fear it contained another dog.
There’s yet another reason to pile in to the pub this weekend: the price of craft beer is about to rocket beyond even the absurd prices currently being charged thanks to a shortage of hops. This is particularly bad news for people like me who will gladly pay an extra £2 for any beer that has a logo designed to look like a Soviet propaganda poster.
So for this week’s review I took a trip to The Harcourt (née The Harcourt Arms) in Marylebone, which has been a been a pub for nearly 200 years. It’s just been renovated and relaunched as a high-end all-day eating and drinking venue. It’s located down the road from the Swedish Ulrika Eleonora church – which has lovely stained glass windows – and isn’t far from the Swedish embassy; the arrival of Finnish chef Kimmo Makkonen (whose CV includes The Orrery, Blanford Street Restaurant, Aubergine, The Greenhouse and Avenue) cements its Scandinavian credentials. There were even some genuine Scandinavians sitting in the corner when I visited, one of whom was sporting a magnificent Scandinavian beard, which definitely improved my experience, although I can’t guarantee he’ll be there when you go.
It’s a lovely old building, with leaded windows and heavy wood-panelling and a marble-topped bar that looks like it’s been there for hundreds of years and probably has. It has a low ceiling with dangling lights that give off what I’m pretty confident is the most flattering light of any restaurant in the world, a kind of high-powered candle-light that, I’m told, makes even the most wine-ravaged visage appear beguiling and mysterious.
What it’s not is a gastropub. At least not from where I was sitting. It’s a restaurant, with restaurant food and restaurant service and restaurant prices. There’s a bar downstairs that’s a bit more pubbish, but even that doesn’t feel like the kind of place you’d pop in for a swift pint to take the edge off a dour service at Ulrika Eleonora’s (also, you can only access the bar through the upstairs restaurant, which I imagine would create an annoying bottleneck when it gets busy).
The menu is British with a Nordic slant, and filled with things that are very good indeed; simple stuff, lots of fish, minimal amount of faff.
The slow-cooked duck egg with straw potato and crispy leek is obviously amazing; there is literally nothing to dislike about the erotic dribble of a slow-cooked egg yolk escaping in slow-motion from its amniotic sheath.
The crisp brown of the glazed ox-cheeks, meanwhile, gave way to vivid purple flesh – none of the grey, pulled-pork consistency you get when you over-cook it. The sea bream poke, a Japanese-influenced Hawaiian dish consisting of chunks of raw fish in soy, ginger and sesame oil, was fine.
For her main, my guest ordered the crab linguine.
“No, no, no,” I waved frantically.
She and the waiter looked horrified.
“I can’t write about another plate of pasta,” I hissed, adding: “She’ll have the reindeer.”
So at this point everybody within earshot thought I was a monster.
“You are a monster,” she smirked.
But I was partially vindicated by how good the reindeer was, with its distinctive cervine musk and heavy flavour despite containing hardly any fat. It comes with a cabbage-wrapped faggot (off-cuts and offal made into a meatball), slices of turnip, pearl barley and lingonberry jam, all of which are good things. It does, however, struggle to justify its £29 price-tag, especially given reindeer is relatively inexpensive.
I went for the “skrei” cod, which is a migrating fish that travels thousands of miles back to its spawning ground on the northern Norwegian coast, thus making it especially firm and tasty. Which it was, although it’s slightly undermined by an uninspiring sauce containing mussels, samphire and slivers of cuttlefish. It reminded me of the kind of thing they’ve been serving in Coq d’Argent, for the last 20 years.
Still, The Harcourt is generally a great little place, somewhere to store in your back pocket and casually pull out next time someone suggests eating at Chiltern Firehouse.
“Actually, I know somewhere just down the road. Yeah, much more discreet. Some fantastic beards. Uh-huh, actually Scandinavian.”
For some reason The Harcourt didn’t want to share any images of the food with us, hence the shonky iPhone pictures above that I only took in case I drank so much of the very nice Cabernet Sauvignon that I forgot what I’d eaten. An email from the restaurant said it’s because pictures of the food are “not the image the owner wants to portray”.
This begs the question of what image the owner does want to portray if it’s not that this is somewhere that you can go to eat. Maybe The Harcourt really does think it’s a pub. It’s definitely not, but I like it anyway.