Thursday, 9 September 2010
The Draft House Tower Bridge, Bermondsey
If you love proper craft beer from interesting producers made with care and personality and style (and I don't see why you wouldn't), there are already many reasons to visit one of the two existing Draft House pubs in south London - the Westbridge on Battersea Bridge Road or the newer Draft House on Northcote Road. Both have an astonishing and rightly famous selection of dazzling beers from all over the world, kept in top condition and served by enthusiastic, expert staff. If food is your passion, however, then perhaps they wouldn't traditionally have been your first choice. I'm told that the fish and chips served on Northcote Road has improved immeasurably since my first visit back in March (thank God) and the kitchens in both sites settled down quite nicely, but I don't think I'm being completely unfair in saying that the main focus of the Draft House has been beer - and very good they are at it too.
For the third and latest Draft House, however, I got the distinct impression that they have scaled up their operation on all fronts. Firstly, the beer. From no fewer than twenty gleaming silver pumps are served a bewildering variety, from the crisp and fruity Estaminet (Belgium, 5.2%) to the chocolatey Meantime London Stout (6.5%) from Greenwich. Added to this I'm told they generally have four cask ales available (usually including local favourite Sambrook's Wandle) and a huge selection of local and international bottles. It would take you many happy drunken evenings to work your way through all of them, and by the time you got to the end half would have been swapped out and replaced anyway.
But what of the food? The first clue that ambitions in the kitchen had been set higher than previous ventures came with the arrival of a selection of canapé-sized versions of their starters. Each, in its own way, was absolutely delicious. From left to right: A gorgeous, silky steak tartare, seasoned perfectly; a moreish smoked salmon and crème fraiche concoction; smoked mackerel on toast; a simply brilliant duck liver paté, rich and satisfying and so light it was like savoury whipped cream; a mini cheese and onion tart; a fantastic prawn sesame toast, better than any I'd had from a Chinese restaurant; and finally a ham hock sesame toast which was luxuriant and crispy in all the right places.
The standard didn't drop for the main course - in fact if anything things got better with the arrival of this world-class pork belly. My appalling photo doesn't go anywhere near conveying just how good this piece of meat was - perfect crispy crackling, meltingly tender flesh and an addictive (and so often sadly lacking) strong piggy flavour, this was second only to the pork belly I had at the Fat Duck, and in fact even the Fat Duck didn't do crackling this well. Clearly the Draft House Tower Bridge has employed a serious chef cooking serious food, albeit in a pleasantly rustic and familiar style, and it really shows.
A cheese course consisted of (from memory), a nice salty Stichelton blue, creamy Brie de Meaux and (my favourite) an unpasteurised cheddar (possibly Keen's) which tasted of farmyards and hay - this is a good thing, by the way. They were served with a basket of still-warm home-baked oatcakes and a sweet onion chutney and made me very, very happy.
With the savoury courses we were supplied with a few selections of the Draft House's more esoteric beers. These included a comically huge bottle of Italian craft beer - Amacord's Gradisca (they apparently name all their beers after Fellini films), a Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary, Estrella Inedit (developed by Ferran Adria, including flavours such as coriander and liquorish and tasting predictably weird), and the completely bonkers Stone Bridge Double Bastard, which was like drinking about thirty (very nice) beers at once. How many of these specific bottles will be available to paying customers once the doors open for good remains to be seen, although it does at least demonstrate that the people behind the Draft House have a serious nose for quality alcoholic product.
Perhaps the dessert panna cotta was a little stodgy and underwhelming or perhaps I was just so stuffed full of food and beer that I couldn't make the most of it. Either way it went well enough with the matched cherry beer and rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
So yes, in case you were wondering, this was "yet another" blogger freebie evening, with the management and PR rep duly in attendance, but it would be a huge mistake to dismiss this experience as completely unrepresentative or some kind of elaborate PR-fuelled con-trick. You just can't fake cooking of this quality - the talent behind that steak tartare and amazing pork belly is producing food for paying customers right now (in fact before September 12th there's 50% off it all during soft opening) and I’m confident if you turned up for a meal tonight you would have every bit as an enjoyable time as those lucky enough to be treated last night. With the opening of the Draft House Tower Bridge, it seems this mini-chain has finally come of age, and for that the people of SE1, and London as a whole, should consider themselves very lucky indeed.
I was invited to the Draft House Tower Bridge by Sauce Communications.