Wednesday, 1 July 2015
The Marksman, Bethnal Green
The gentrification of Shoreditch is now so advanced and so final that even those that still privately bemoan the disappearance of the old working-men's clubs, the spit-and-sawdust pubs, laundrettes and pound shops, have stopped commenting on it in public. That battle has been lost. This is now a place of wine bars, speakeasies, popups and street food, £5 a pint and £40 a head, the new shorthand for London itself, beards the new bearskin, tattoos the new Tower Bridge.
And I'm torn myself, for though of course I hate to see any part of our collective heritage priced out and forgotten, the problem with the kind of people who are setting up shop in this part of town lately is that so many of them are annoyingly good. Sagar and Wilde, for example, is exactly the kind of wine bar that every oenophile wants on their doorstep, an intimate and comfortable place staffed by helpful and passionate staff. It replaced a pub called the British Lion which was very popular with skinhead BNP supporters and had more regular visits from the local constabulary than brewery vans. Perhaps it is a shame that the "old" Shoreditch has disappeared, but I am not a racist, I am a glutton, which is an altogether more acceptable 21st century sin, and the new Shoreditch is far more my kind of scene.
The Marksman, just a few steps down the street from Sagar & Wilde, has, too, been modernised. Exactly how different it is from its previous incarnation I can't tell you because I've never been inside before, but I get the impression they're trying to make the change as painless and subtle as possible for all concerned. It's all very tastefully done and it definitely still feels like a cosy boozer, with wobbly furniture, bar stools and even a group of burly old boys occupying their corner of the room as they presumably have for many years previously. But look a little closer and the signs are there - table service, craft beers, and an intriguing new menu. Things are afoot.
Two freshly-shucked rock oysters, dressed with apple and pickled elderberries, just the thing for a warm summer's evening. I liked how they were balanced on top of their own shell lids, I liked how the oyster meat was loosened and I liked how the gentle acidic/floral notes that had been added to the minerally shellfish.
And I liked absolutely everything else. In fact I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed a more comprehensively perfect menu. A sign of a good restaurant is that the food you order you enjoy, and you're happy to pay for it, and want to go back once it's all over. Surely a sign of a perfect restaurant is that choosing between salt hake & potato rissoles, devilled crab on toast or beef & barley bun is just an exercise in satisficing, and that picking a dish at random would have yielded similarly stunning results. This is the beef bun by the way, a sweet, soft sphere containing the finest loose-meat pie filling, accompanied by an ethereally light horseradish cream. You could work for a thousand years and not be able to improve it, a thing of exquisite beauty.
Similarly devilled crab on toast. I've had devilled crab on toast before, very nice crab on toast too. But this was devilled crab on toast made by someone who finally knows what devilled crab on toast should be. Thin bread, just soaking enough of the juices without being collapsey, topped with an oil-flecked "mayo" so light it's almost a foam, and of course plenty of fresh white crab meat, fresh herbs and chilli. Perfect.
Megrim sole was gently butter-browned, the flesh cooked so well it lifted off in huge, bright-white, meaty chunks. The sharp & seasalty salad it came with was a colourful balance to the buttery fish, and was itself impressive enough to be a talking point. I wonder if anything could be improved about this plate of food, and I suspect not. It was, again, perfect.
As for the other main, curried kid with sourdough roti, well, what would you improve about a vast haunch of slow-cooked goat, dressed in thick curry oils and spices so that each last square inch of this beautiful piece of meat was seasoned flawlessly? Or a clever sourdough flatbread topped with a clear tomato jam, a nod to a curry house naan but something much more delicate and sophisticated? Nothing, that's what. This was, again, perfect.
I'd heard rumours of the brown butter & honey tart on the Twitter grapevine but still nothing could prepare us for the reality of a thin pastry base supporting a custard/honey mixture so precisely on the edge of collapse that the whole thing dissolved in the mouth like butter-honey candy floss. It was, of course, perfect.
And a chocolate ganache, smooth as silk, with a malt ice cream and surrounded by (I think) booze-soaked, slightly dried cherries, little chewy flavour bombs, topped with bits of cherry-sugar crackling. Which bit of that doesn't sound great? What would you add or remove? Nothing? No, me neither.
What the Marksman deserves to be - and what I sincerely hope it remains - is a perfect example of how a traditional East End boozer can be revamped and reimagined for a younger and more food-savvy audience without sacrificing any of the features that made it a pub (as opposed to a restaurant, or bar) in the first place. If you can keep the old boys at the bar happy, whilst serving magnificent, innovative dishes alongside a carefully-chosen wine list, then you have walked that line perfectly and deserve to do very well. Meanwhile, no matter what the future holds, know only this - that there are few better places to eat and drink in town, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to completely fall in love with the place. The perfect pub? Probably. The perfect score? Why not.
The Marksman will be in the next version of the app. But if you can't get a table, try my app for other options in the area.