Tuesday, 1 October 2013
The Bull and Last, Highgate
"The best things in life are free", the Beatles once sang, and certainly in London we're spoiled for choice when it comes to free attractions. There are the museums and art galleries, of course, that goes without saying - the glorious privilege of being able to wander around the Tate Britain or the Victoria and Albert Museum or the National Portrait Gallery is one that we should never take for granted, and that you can do so without spending a single penny makes me feel warm inside.
But as much enjoyment - for free - can be had walking just wandering around. It helps if the bit of London you're wandering around is disarmingly beautiful, of course, and it also helps if at the end of the wandering you have a nice slap-up (albeit not free) pub lunch to look forward to. So a stroll from Hampstead village, across the Heath and ending up in the Bull and Last on Highgate Road ticks all those boxes very well indeed.
The skill and attention to detail displayed in the food at the Bull and Last is quite something to behold. A white onion and thyme soup, presented in a cream stoneware bowl and studded with drops of truffle oil, came partnered with a little mound of sweet deep-fried shallots, which you could use as croutons and add to the soup, or just snack on separately. The soup itself was herby, creamy and gently truffle-y, classical French food reimagined by a smart English gastropub. Marvellous stuff.
The fish platter contained enough variety to keep us amused for a good twenty minutes, trying each element in turn to discover that nearly each was as good as the last. Highlights included a superb house potted shrimp, crunchy and entirely greaseless chipirones (deep-fried baby squid) topped with a very good aioli, and some sweet, moist slices of soda bread. Only some overly salty beetroot-cured "gravadlax" let the side down somewhat, but in the context of everything else it hardly mattered. It all disappeared.
You can tell when I'm having fun in a restaurant when I find room for dessert. Paired with a chocolate mousse dessert that would compare very well to the Louis XV-a-like from Gauthier/Tartufo was a lovely blackberry ice cream. We'd past many bramble bushes in the Heath on the way to lunch; I'd like to think these had been foraged from there but whether they were or not, they still tasted great. Desserts in even some of the smarter gastropubs can be little more than the panacotta/sticky toffee pudding variety, but not so here - this had taken someone quite a bit of time to put together.
Prices are, perhaps, just a tad above what you might expect in your average pub. But the food and service is clearly worth the extra outlay and then some, and I can't imagine anyone would pay their bill begrudgingly after a meal here. A classy, refined place that does everything with charm and flair, it is the pub everyone in London wants but only the residents of Highgate are lucky enough to call it their local. But don't let them have all the fun - wherever you live, next time you set out for a Sunday stroll, see if you can't end up at the Bull and Last. You'll feel right at home.