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.