Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Owl and Pussycat, Shoreditch

Not long ago, the Owl and Pussycat was a proper old fashioned pub, with bar billiards, peeling wallpaper and a grumpy bar man. This was way before I frequented the area - I only know this thanks to the historical record at beerintheevening.com, which in comments left over the last six years documents the sad march of progress as Shoreditch gentrified and the Nathan Barleys moved in. It was really only a matter of time before a group of investors spotted this unreconstructed boozer amongst the gastropubs and wine bars of the trendy East End and thought there was a buck or two to be made. And to that end, we now have The Owl and Pussycat 2.0, now just another smartish, tastefully-lit bar serving slightly overpriced beer and slightly incompetent food.

The menu is expertly crafted to appeal to disciples of "traditional" British food in 2010. Lambs tongue, marrowbone on toast, terrine, ham hock - a couple of years ago, these would be the ingredient choices of an operation inspired by the St John school of cooking, and a sign of an ambitious kitchen. Now, marrowbone and ham hock are the new grilled halloumi and butternut squash, and their appearance on a menu signals the very opposite of ambition. We ordered a few courses and tried not to get our hopes up.

First to arrive were rock oysters, annoyingly pre-dressed with shallot vinegar but nevertheless juicy and fresh, and at £1.20 each reasonably good value. Pork, duck and peppercorn terrine wasn't bad either - dense, sausagey meat and nicely seasoned. So the Owl and Pussycat know how to open an oyster and slice up a terrine.

It's when the hot food arrived that the real problems began. Fishcakes were horribly dry and overcooked inside, and required every bit of the dull tartare sauce to make them digestible. An equally heinous crime was committed on the pheasant, which is a tough bird at the best of times and wasn't helped here by being overcooked to grey all the way to the middle - not a hint of pink anywhere. The bacon bits were tasty enough, and the mashed potato was fine, but there wasn't nearly enough sauce and with meat this dry it really needed it. Both dishes - and, for that matter, the terrine - had a huge lump of bitter watercress dumped on top as token greenery. I don't like watercress.

So I expect the business brains behind the Owl and Pussycat are congratulating themselves on a successful refurb and will no doubt make their money back many times over. They've done enough - deliberately, carefully, just enough - to run a profitable pub in Shoreditch, and punters demanding nothing much more than a cold lager and something to wash it down with will, I'm sure, populate the leather banquettes and fashionably distressed armchairs in their droves. There's no point in me getting angry about the predictable menu and sloppy cooking because, quite frankly, I doubt anyone in charge will care enough to fix it. As long as the operating profit is healthy, and as long as there are undiscriminating media types on Bethnal Green Road with fabulous hair and more money than tastebuds, there will be places like the Owl and Pussycat. I might as well just get used to it.


The Owl and Pussycat on Urbanspoon


Miss Beaver said...

Again, as for the AASH, I'm glad you tried this so I don't have to. I loved the old boozer, and was eyeing up the menu on Friday night. I only got as far as their red wine though - so bitterly gag-inducing that I couldn't actually finish a glass. If a pub can't get booze right I don't trust them to produce food any more challenging than a pork scratching. Needless to say we ate elsewhere. It's a shame, it had promise.

The Grubworm said...

Is there anything more depressing than kitchens 'playing safe' (i.e. over cooking to point of no return) with food they consider adventurous.

It looks like yet another anonymous hipster version of All bar One to avoid. Sad really. Particularly when it replaces a decent old school boozer.

I reckon your five sounds a bit too generous.

PDH said...

I am actually disappointed... I spotted this place the other week looking all lovely and thought I'd give it a try but the food looks dull dull dull. Such a shame as the name still conjures up something magical.

Anonymous said...

I dunno Chris...I think for those who look further afield than the basic for their dinner the idea of marrowbone etc seems very passe and derivative, but for a lot of people it's still quite novel.

And what's the point in St. John et al blazing a trail if it's going to be doused by the flames of an 'it's already been done' attitude?

Then again, if they don't get it right then my point is neither here nor there.

Mzungu said...

It's a shame when Fat Cat's put profit before anything else.
What we need are more regulars buying pubs and running them how they should be run. But hey who has the money for that.
Anyhows, another old time boozer bites the dust to be replaced with a plastic version of its former self. shameful.

Pasta Bites said...

Watercress everywhere!

Ferders said...

Aw, man. I remember the good old days of the OAP, when the air was musty, the furniture rickety, the place smelt of old beer and the grumpy landlord expressed sheer disgust at the prospect of combining orange juice and lemonade into one drink. ('What - you mean in the same GLASS?!')

This looks wholly anodyne and androgynous. In keeping with Redchurch Street generally, these days, I suppose.(*'It's all so mainstream and commercial, man' ALERT

Hollow Legs said...

I would be extremely annoyed if someone garnished my oysters for me. It looks pretty rubbish, and to over-cook pheasant? Gah!

Nancy said...

Mmmm - sounds like you had a bad experience, Chris. I've eaten at the Owl & Pussycat twice since it reopened, and despite initial reservations as I had been to the pub several times before it was refurbished, I have to say I thought the food was great and that a lot more thought and effort went into it than at your average Shoreditch eaterie. The service was genuinely welcoming, which more than made up for the slight slowness in the service that was probably a symptom of new chef, new kitchen, etc. The lamb's tongue starter was definitely not your average halloumi and butternut squash offering, and the ox cheek (for two) was amazingly tender and tasty. My friends' rabbit was also pronounced delicious, as was the cheese plate we managed to share instead of something sweet. The layout of the downstairs bar hasn't been changed all that much, no no gripe with that, although it does now look a good deal more cosy and inviting. And, let's be honest, the beer now tastes like someone actually bothers to clean the lines every now and then. I suspect the former landlord's hygiene regime was as erratic as his opening hours! The new upstairs dining room is a welcome addition, and the small bar area there was perfect for a couple of post-dinner drinks. The back garden also looks a lot more attractive and comfortable than it used to be. I think there's a lot of false nostalgia for places that change for the better and weren't really that great in the first place. It's easy to get on the anti-gentrification bandwagon, but let's face it, change is what makes urban life interesting. Give me Euphorium Bakery over Percy Ingle any day. I certainly didn't get the impression that the O&P has become some sort of investor-run venture - it really seemed to me that someone genuinely cares here - about how it looks, about how the food is cooked and presented (and how it tastes) and how the staff treat the customers. Better than a surly barman and a smell of stale beer, methinks..... Credit where it's due!

Chris Pople said...

James: Yeah, that's a good point. I probably came across as a bit jaded :) Yes, if they had cooked any of the stuff we'd ordered well, then I would have been a lot more positive about the menu.

Nancy: Thanks for your comment, you definitely make a good case for the defence. I would have been a lot forgiving about everything though - the decor, the refurb, the menu - had the food been better. Those fishcakes really were as dull as dishwater, and overcooking pheasant to rubbery grey is a no-no. Maybe I was just unlucky.

Chris B said...

Not sure how often you visited the OAP in its previous life.....but it strikes me that this is a vast improvement. It is still a great bar (sorry, I mean, is now a great bar)eating is not required, nor oversold..I actually thought it difficult to find the upstairs dining room, but when I did, thought the food was excellent (rabbit stew shared with my brother), unpretentious, and spot on..great value...what else do you want? It is a far cry from the brakes brothers microwave specials and odious scampi and chips...
I know and love Fergus Henderson, I would rather people mimic his brilliance than take the lazy ready meal option as once was the way.
Give the OAP time to settle down, I think it will be great.

Sean said...

I know some guys from this place, and whilst I havent made it down there myself yet, I can guarantee you that it is not being run by people looking for "just enough" to get their money back. Dont be so cynical.

It seems so easy to not like people/stuff/places these days. I reckon everyones life would be a little better with a slightly more positive outlook. Im not suggesting that over pricing or bad cooking should be rewarded, but this place is new. Many of the best took time to bed in.

For all the people who are deciding not to go based on others comments, I'd beware. You could be overlooking something great.

I'll be there to take my own view on proceedings and with a smile on my face and an open mind...

Chris Pople said...

Sean: For your sake, I hope you're still smiling when you eat the food

mzungu said...

Nancy and James do you guys work there ? or are you the owners ?

The Owl and Pussycat said...

After much thought and deliberation, I write on behalf of the ownership and management of The Owl and Pussycat in response to your comments. It is of course a free world and your opinion of the menu and food standards are your right and, in our minds, constructive feedback is welcome. I have no idea whether or not it is common practice to respond to a journalist directly but it is my feeling that despite your points regarding the menu and food in the downstairs bar, there were other comments made that I think it is appropriate to correct.

There seems to have been “moral panic” where the pub, its refurbishment and subsequent evolution are concerned. For this reason, I should point out that we are not a group of investors. We are a small pub company [we only have 6 pubs] where the senior management and owners alike work in and around the sites, putting in as many hours as the bar and waiting staff. Far from being ambivalent to the industry and the integrity of the offer we are attempting, we care passionately and all details are scrutinised extensively. I must therefore object to the notion that we are in it for the quick buck and that we do not care enough to bother to correct any opening execution issues. To insinuate this in your blog is not only irrelevant but ill informed. As for “making our money back many times over” and other comments about “doing just enough to turn a healthy operating profit”, any company or individual that operates a pub in today’s age under the tied lease model would find those comments difficult to digest [no pun intended]. Tied pubs and tons of money are mutually exclusive!

With those points addressed, I would like to respond to your comments regarding the food. We were really disappointed to see that you found the menu so predictable. Your phrase “the menu is crafted to appeal to disciples of traditional British food in 2010” really sums up what we are trying to do. The nod to Fergus Henderson is less about plagiarising St John [which we do hold in very high regard] and more about trying to incorporate the Georgian heritage of the building into the cuisine and the offer. I am not convinced the dishes are as main stream as you have suggested, however you are obviously more than entitled to your opinion and it is duly noted. The last thing we want to be is “predictable” much less mediocre, so we will bear in mind your thoughts on the menu going forward. It is a shame that you did not get to see the restaurant upstairs as the menu is more extensive and possibly more what you would be looking for.

The most disappointing thing to us about your review is your thoughts on the execution. We have not had feedback like yours from anyone else that has eaten at The Owl and Pussycat. Agreed, perhaps the average person does not eat and critique as often as you do, however the problems seem to be so extreme that they would have been identified by any diner. That said, the standard of food you describe is unacceptable and is not the standard we hold ourselves to. Aside from the normal teething issues sustained during an opening, we are confident in the food we are producing and the value for money.

Finally, I can only say that the level of thought that has gone into the food, the wine list, the staff, the training, the garden, the heritage of the building, the design, the period features, the furniture to name but a few do not constitute “deliberately…carefully, just enough “ effort. Actually, it was a labour of blood, sweat and tears that we believe in. We hope that people who read your blog and other reviews do not get distracted by the tall tales of corporate vampires sucking the blood out of an East End institution – granted it makes a great story, it just isn’t true. We hope they come and see for themselves.

Chris Pople said...

Owl and Pussycat: Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed response.

As you can probably tell from comments others have left on this post, I seem to be going against the grain a bit on this one. And as you rightly point out, I did, partly because this is What Usually Happens in London and partly because jumping to wild and unfounded conclusions is the God-given right of a food blogger, probably say a few things about the way the pub is run that don't really hold up. I have no doubt all the things you say about your company and your commitment to running a great pub are true and I'll give you the ultimate benefit of the doubt on that.

And regarding the menu being predictable, as Mr Ramsden says above, I was also perhaps a bit harsh. I actually have no problem with anywhere wanting to emulate the St John style, I love that place. And ordinarily I would have quite happily chugged down some oysters and roast pheasant and had a thoroughly good time.

The problem is, and this is the point I do stand by in my review, the main bits of the food just weren't cooked very well. It may have been an off day, I may have ordered badly (though really I shouldn't have been able to), but the fishcakes and the pheasant were overcooked and dry and a chore to eat, and everything had too much bloody watercress dumped on it. And I am entirely confident the "average person" would have thought exactly the same, but also, like me, just opted not to complain for a quiet life. Some bits were fine - the terrine and the oysters - but most of the rest of it wasn't. Hence 5/10. And hence me being in a less than charitable mood when it came to speculating on everything else.

That said, I'm grateful for such a comprehensive rebuttal as I don't often get to hear feedback first-hand from a restaurant. You clearly DO care about your pub, and I wish you all the best. And perhaps, if I'm not blacklisted, I will pop in again soon for a pint of Starpramen and half a dozen rocks.

The Owl and Pussycat said...

Chris, thank you for your considered response.

You are of course not blacklisted [!] and always welcome at The Owl.

Rosie said...

I have just read probably one of the most arrogant,self indulgent and inaccurate food critiques ever. I come to London on a regular basis. My friends and I decided to eat at the new Owl and the Pussycat. We found it to be a place that had been restored thoughtfully. The staff were helpful and pleasant. The restaurant menu was thoughtfully put together in keeping with the period of the pub(confirmed by talking to the waiter). The wine list was comprehensive and full of good wines. Our food was delightful, tasty and well cooked( yes a bit too much watercress I agree). However I don't see that as a bonafide reason for slagging a place off when a quiet, kindly word would sort it out. You see Chris, if you and the other contributors to this page wish to be taken seriously as food buffs and professional food critics then I suggest that you do your research before submitting a piece of writing that has precious little credibility. Did you bother to speak to the staff, ask questions as to how the restoration was accomplished, why the menu was chosen in the way that it was,why certain wines were chosen,what other pubs did this company own ( and try them). Why didn't you complain politely and get something else to eat and then go back another time to see if your observations had been noted and acted upon? My suggestion to you would be that for your next assignment you start off by doing your homework and research THOROUGHLY then go more than once so that you can give a fair and accurate assessment of your project and not just a one sided, ill informed and bad tempered load of tripe and drivel. Oh and by the way, I do not work for or have any association with whoever owns/runs this establishment. I am just a customer who is interested in the food that I eat and the surroundings in which I eat it. I like to be pleasant and fair to the people who are preparing and serving my meal. I like to give people a chance to prove themselves. It doesn't take Einstein to come up with a fair, accurate descriptive piece of writing. Yes, when we pay for a meal we want something that we can enjoy and all that entails. Remember your opinion is just that, your opinion not the ultimate in what is best and lastly you do not have a'God given right to make wild ill founded conclusions'

TW said...

Ridiculous. Fashionable banquettes and tasteful lighting bring in more customers than peeling wallpaper and a grumpy barman - of course they do.

And despite this inverse snobbery you turn up your nose at halloumi. Ha! Make up your mind.

You head off to the few unfriendly old-fashioned boozers left, enjoy your scampi and chips, and the rest of us will demand a little more.