Monday, 23 February 2009
The Horseshoe, Hampstead
For reasons which will doubtless never be completely explained, the whole of South London is currently suffering from an epidemic of Massive Pointless Holes In The Road. Quite a feat of engineering they are too, so deep you can't see the bottom, supported by huge steel girders and a good twenty foot across. They're a constant source of fascination to the kids in Battersea, who chuck empty cans of Pepsi down them, perhaps to listen for the clang and figure out how deep they are. And I would be quite happy to leave them to it and gaze in similarly bemused admiration at these Massive Holes, where it not for the fact that the London buses, as dangerously unpredictable as wild Roe Deer at the best of times, now finally have a cast-iron excuse to never be anywhere you expect them to be, and getting in and out of SW11 requires persistence, dedication and a true hunter's instinct. I possess none of these qualities, which is why my journey of approximately eight miles to Hampstead on Saturday afternoon took the best part of three hours. Fortunately, it was worth the effort.
The interior of the Horseshoe, by design or accident, brings to mind the minimalist aesthetics of St. John in Clerkenwell. Huge ceilings and whitewashed walls create a lofty and attractive room, but when it's full it does mean there's a bit of a din. The crowd is as well-heeled as you might expect in this part of town, although luckily - and crucially, for anywhere calling itself a gastropub - there were a number of tables of people just taking advantage of the excellent house ales, and they looked quite at home as well. Some very good house bread arrived along with some unsalted butter, and we made our food selections.
I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to scallops. I have never eaten a preparation I enjoyed more than searing in butter, perhaps with a little garlic, and plonked on a plate, and here they were cooked perfectly - crusty on the outside, sweet and juicy within. A smear of bright red beetroot purée added little other than colour (I have always found beetroot to be a singularly unimpressive vegetable in terms of taste - all mouth and no trousers, so to speak) but thanks to the scallops themselves, this was a very successful starter.
For a main course, I took a huge gamble. The daily special was a Beef Forerib for Two (£40), served sliced on a wooden slab and accompanied by a couple of dainty jugs of roasting jus and a bowl each of perhaps the finest chips in London. Doused in vinegar and salt, these chips would be worth a visit to the Horseshoe alone - triple cooked, presumably, in goose fat and cut to just the perfect size (no "chunky chip" nonsense here, nor the fiddly French Fry cut) they were crunchy and tasty and about as perfect a chip as you could imagine. You'll also have to take my word on this because unfortunately the picture didn't turn out for some reason. The beef, out of interest, was OK. Impressive to look at and cooked reasonably well, it was nevertheless rather bland in taste - Hawksmoor don't have much to worry about just yet. On the other hand, they gave us the leftovers and bones to take home with us and I used them to make rather a good beef stock the next day.
Desserts were competent and reasonably enjoyable but the fact I needed the photographic evidence to even remind me what I ate barely 12 hours ago gives you some indication of how memorable. I should also say a word about the service, which was smiley and efficient and I was so impressed with one particular waitress I punched her in the stomach in gratitude. Actually, it didn't quite happen like that. I was putting my coat on after quite a bit of lovely house Chardonnay (Beresford Highwood (2007) Langhorne Creek - "Excellent producer in Langhorne Creek, south of Adelaide" according to Dan from Bibendum, and a steal at £16 a bottle) and with a particularly flamboyant gesture, made in an attempt to get my left arm through the sleeve of my jacket but rather negligently failing to ensure the area behind me was clear in preparation for such a manoeuvre, I somehow made contact with the stomach of a waitress carrying two plates of hot food. To give credit where credit's due, she absorbed the body blow like a prize boxer and with a stifled whimper delivered the food to the customers just behind us and stiffly backed away. I attempted an apology but I get the feeling she was more concerned with getting out of my reach in case I unexpectedly lashed out again, because she avoided eye contact. Can't say I blame her.
Still, taking into consideration all factors - the ambience, the level of cooking, and the ability of the waiting staff to deal with violently drunken customers, the Horseshoe is a real find. It's reasonably priced, has taken all the good things about the St John philosophy on board without being too pretentious about it, and is one of the few places in this part of town where you really get your moneys worth. The only real issue, for those of us not lucky enough to live within spitting distance of NW6, is that bloody journey. On the other hand, it would keep more than an obstacle course of Massive Pointless Holes to keep me away from the Horseshoe.