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.