Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Canton Arms, Stockwell

One of my favourite places to eat within walking distance of my office - in fact, come to think of it, the only decent place to eat within walking distance of my office, is 32 Great Queen Street. It's a lovely, buzzy place with charming staff and tasty, uncomplicated food and I've never had a bad meal there. One of the reasons I prefer it over its sister restaurant, the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo, is that you can book a table and therefore avoid the hassle and stress of fighting to get there early or queuing for hours or - even worse - being shown to the last two seats on a large table of friends who spend the evening talking loudly and passing food around to each other while you sip quietly on house wine and wish they'd hurry up and leave. This has happened to me once at the Anchor - it's not much fun.

Sadly, the Canton Arms, the latest member of the family, takes its booking policy from the place in Waterloo and not the eminently more sensible GQS. I dashed out of work in a panic yesterday at 6pm, determined to get to Stockwell before the hordes, appetites whetted by so many good reviews, beat me to the front of the queue and ruined my evening. As it turns out, I needn't have worried - not a single other soul arrived to eat before we'd finished our main courses. But I was happy I made sure.

The menu was short and to the point. Normally this is a good thing, but my heart fell on realising there wasn't any of the delicious game that GQS does so brilliantly - no roast pigeon or teal or anything else small and feathery. It read like a slightly more stripped-down and simplified version of the A&H and GQS menus, and while you can possibly defend this given its location and style (while GQS and the A&H feel like wine bars with a restaurant attached, the non-eating section of the Canton Arms is very much an old-fashioned boozer, and none the worse for it), it was still disappointing. They do, however, offer a familiar 4-hour roast shoulder of lamb for four and a steak pie for two, so it's nice to see some traditions continuing.

My starter of smoked sprats were rustic in presentation and preparation but had a nice flavour. Unsure of the best way of eating them I ended up cutting off the heads and swallowing the body whole while holding onto the tail - it meant crunching through quite a bit of bone but when I tried an alternative filleting method I didn't get very far at all - the flesh was too pasty to separate from the bones. So I think I was right first time.

A friend's cuttlefish, chickpeas and aioli was much easier to eat, with lovely tender seafood. Presentation was, again, pretty rustic and whatever sauce the squid was in had turned the flesh a strange shade of pink, but the overall effect was pleasant enough.

Mains were far more interesting. A whole grilled sole was cooked incredibly well, the flesh pulling off in satisfying meaty chunks and served underneath a good butter herb dressing. To get a lovely fresh bit of fish like this for £15 is a bargain, even though it didn't come with any sides and necessitated the purchase of a £2.50 bowl of greens.

Onglet and chips was also of a very high standard. Chips in particular were superb and were happily dunked in the house Bearnaise (containing, rather oddly, tiny chunks of what I think were capers, which although hardly traditional didn't do any harm). The steak itself was, as you'd expect from this cheaper cut, rather chewy, so I could have done with a serrated knife to help with chopping it up. But it had a great flavour and had been cooked correctly medium-rare - just as well, as I wasn't asked how I'd like it on ordering.

I liked the Canton Arms. Even as a kind of Great Queen Street 'Lite', it's a cut above most other gastropubs in London and uniquely for this group has managed to still retain the feel of a normal local drinking den whilst serving braised duck leg and foie gras. Ah yes, the foie gras. Some of you with a more than healthy obsession with the latest restaurant trends (don't worry, you're in good company here) will have heard that the Canton Arms does a foie gras "toastie" - a generous layer of duck liver inside slices of white bread, fresh from the Breville. Unforgiveably, I had completely forgotten about this until I was walking out and spotted it on the bar menu. I suppose it provides a reason to return. Happily, despite the no booking policy, it's not the only one.


Canton Arms on Urbanspoon


Louis Anthony Woodbine said...

Enjoyed reading this as it reminded me of my visit. I did try the signature toastie and was rather let down after the hype. It had rather insignificant shavings of foie gras and I would have spent a bit more willingly. (You will have to let me know!) My main criticism is the wine list, which is too expensive for a 'local' although good.

Glad to see the mains are consistent though, I loved my pork dish and the lamb of my companion for the meal was really cooked well.

Andy K said...

Your review poses a bit of issue for me. Well, maybe not, but the amount of press coverage that the Canton Arms has got of late does. It's basically a local pub with good food, rather than a destination restaurant. The extent of coverage is, however, treating it more like the latter, presumably because of its A&H/GQS pedigree.

I reckon the pub is best left alone to allow its nearby residents to enjoy it. If it's good and cheap it'll do fine on its own. The last thing they need is a huge influx of foodies from other parts of town/the country, desperate to try the toastie because it sounds cool, nevery to retuen once the publicity dies down in the next 3 months...

That's not to denigrate your write up at all - I'm glad it's been highlighted by people because it used to be a bit scuzzie and I woudn't otherwise have know that it had changed hands. It's just weird to me that the Canton arms has been visited by restaurant reviewers from the national press given it is essentially just a local in Kennington. Why don't they all go to the Black Prince up the road too? They do a decent burger and a good pork belly...

Hope you're well btw.

Hollow Legs said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with your comment that the A&H (which is one of my favourite places, admittedly) is more of a wine bar; the drinking section feels distinctly boozer-y to me.

It all sounds good but given I STILL haven't visited GQS, that's first on my list.

Patrick said...

I really like this place.

Would recommend The Magdalen Arms in Oxford too, owned by the A&H lot. Think you can book there.

They also have a guest house somewhere in France although I've never visited. One day hopefully!

Jonathan said...

Nice review. From my chat with the chef they are planning to cure their own meat and evolve the menu in due course. And your comment about it retaining the feel of a real boozer rings true as well.

I greedily had both the haggis and foie gras toasties. Both were excellent and I am very disappointed that you missed out. But hey ho. It just means you'll have to return. Just like I must return to try out their proper food.

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London said...

Steak looks lovely - nice and juicy, and love big glass full of bearnaise - yum. This is on my (incredibly long) list of places to try!

Unknown said...

Looks like dinner may be a better bet than lunch ;-) Interesting to see that now the initial hype's died down it's back to being a walk-in (I too rail against no-bookings policies, but then a pub shouldn't need one).

I agree with Lizzie about A&H, nothing of the wine bar about it that I can discern!

Devastated that you were a stone's throw from chez Wright and didn't even ask me to join you for a sherry...

Eva Lai said...

ah, so satisfying. So how did they decide on the pub name? Seems like an interesting Oriental-English hybrid.
Speaking of panicking, when you do the bad reviews on various places out there, I wonder if the waiters panic as they get you in... like they know who you are and this places fear in their hearts- haha. Well if they are regular employees as opposed to the owners I suppose they won't be giving such a toss then (which might be partly why they get bad reviews...).

Eva Lai said...

I miss home

Chris Pople said...

Andy K: Completely understand what you mean, and the hype has probably gotten a little out of hand. I'd say it was still a cut above the usual gastropub though, thanks (as you say) to its pedigree. I will have to try the Black Prince!

Lizzie/Hugh: Perhaps I remembered wrong, but the A&H seemed a bit too dark and trendy to be a normal pub

Liz said...

And you didn't get ticked off for photographing the sole! Saw your Times mention - well done!

Back on topic, I've not been to the CA, but my brother's been encouraging me in the direction of the toastie. I really, really liked the look of that sole.

Northern Snippet said...

I like the rustic style.Means they've concentrated on the taste rather than fancy presentation.Unlike a place we visited earlier in the week.