Friday, 3 July 2009
The Well, Clerkenwell
I couldn't wait another 24 hours to erase the memory of the hideous Hat and Feathers lunch (otherwise known as Burgergate) and so today put my faith in the Well, a gastropub-cum-bistro-cum-somethingorother on St John Street. Many years ago I had a couple of quite delicious dinners here, one of which memorably involved half a grilled rabbit and seared foie gras, washed down by some really innovative cocktails. The cocktail list seems to have survived, boasting some interesting ingredients and something called an Oyster Shot(?) but the menu was a bit dispiriting. It's not that I have anything in particular against fish cakes, goat's cheese tart, sausage and mash or steak and chips, it just seems to show a distinct lack of ambition to put them all together on one menu and call it a gastropub. Still, benefit of the doubt and all that. I ordered the burger.
Byron and Haché don't have much to worry about just yet. The beef was rather taste and textureless, albeit nicely moist. The (Applewood smoked) cheddar worked well with the charred beef, and the pickles were great. I never understand why some places feel the need to drop a green leaf salad into a burger, as it all just wilts into a big soggy mess - this doesn't happen with a slice of tomato or fresh onion for example - but there it was anyway. The fries were just how I like them, crunchy and thin and generous of portion, and even a side order of coleslaw was fresh and homemade, if slightly pointless. I have to say though, that while I can see what they are trying to do with the bun - it was nice and sweet and correctly toasted with its golden crust dotted with sesame seeds - I'm afraid the bread was quite stale and even the toasting had not prevented the base from being chewy and dry. Barely two bites in the bread had begun to split down the middle and I very soon had to abandon the hands method and use a knife and fork. A shame because there aren't enough burgers in London that use a nice sweet brioche bun - neither Haché or Byron, despite their expertise in all the other relevant areas, have got this right in my opinion.
As I was brandishing my iPhone to take the shot above, I heard a gasp of "He's taking photos!" from a member of staff nearby. I looked up just in time to see three of them dive behind a basket of fruit on the bar and conduct a very hastily convened staff meeting in furtive whispers. Seconds later, the manageress reappeared from behind the fruit, straightened her skirt and approached my little table, asking "Is everything OK?" with - I don't think I'm being too arrogant to say - perhaps a slight note of apprehension. "Fine, thanks!" I cheerily replied, being basically a bit of a coward and anyway it wasn't THAT bad. She seemed happy with that and scurried off again. Service from then on was if not exactly better (and to be fair to them, it had been perfectly good up to that point anyway) then perhaps more... intense. I made a mental note to be more surreptitious with my photo taking in the future, especially when dining on my own.
The "rumbled" incident aside, I left The Well with the distinct impression of a place resting on its laurels. Certainly, although there are many things to like about an informal, attractive room selling oysters and good cocktails, the food seems increasingly like an afterthought and it's hard to see how today's kitchen could produce another grilled rabbit and foie gras main course like they did 3 or 4 years ago. If they are happy to slide into anonymity, then of course that's their choice, and if they're still making money I can see why they might not care. But there are simply too many other excellent options in this part of town to warrant complacency for any length of time. Aiming for "just good enough" is just not good enough. You wait and see.