Monday, 5 February 2018

The Coach, Clerkenwell

Imagine how difficult it must be to launch, and run, a really, really good gastropub. In fact, you don't even need to imagine - just look at how few there are anywhere. If it was really that easy to fashion yourself a Rat Inn, or Parkers Arms, or Sportsman, do you not think there'd be one on every high street in any small town in the country? Each full of happy families eating local, seasonal food matched with interesting wines and a selection of local beers. We'd be spoiled for choice.

Well, we're not, and we're not because the sheer amount of things that need to go right, from finding a good site, fitting it out, finding suppliers, finding chefs, KPs, front of house and then finally designing a menu attractive enough to tempt in the punters, means that it's only a very few, very special places that can afford to be mentioned amongst the truly great. I've listed a few above, but for a more comprehensive roster of pubs that are very unlikely to let you down try the Morning Advertiser Top 50 Gastropubs, a far more reliable indicator of a good feed than any number of Michelin stars, and also one with a happy lack of London bias.

I mention the above because the scale of Henry Harris and business partner James McCulloch's achievement in setting up the Coach in Clerkenwell cannot be overstated. Already, in its first few weeks, it's raced to the top of my personal list of best restaurants in London, a beautifully refurbished space serving a supremely attractive menu of classy French-English dishes, for a perfectly reasonable amount of money. By anyone's standards, this is a fantastic gastropub.

But Harris and McCulloch aren't stopping there. Believe it or not, these over-achievers are launching not just the Coach but two other top-flight gastropubs at the same time - the Three Cranes Tavern in the city, and the Truscott Arms (soon to be renamed) in Maida Vale, each serving the kind of refined, thoughful cuisine Harris is known for and promising to raise the average standard of food in the capital by a good few notches all by themselves.

I'm yet to visit the Three Cranes or the Truscott Arms, but thanks to it being about 10 minutes walk from the office I have been to the Coach three times for lunch, and can recommend everything I've eaten. This is onion and ale soup topped with cheese on toast, sort of a vegetarian version of French Onion soup but you hardly miss the beef stock at all. Glossy and rich with caramelised onion flavour, with a hint of alcohol from the ale, it would be a perfect warming winter treat even without the chunks of cheesy sourdough to chase around.

This was the greatest rabbit dish I can remember eating in many years, and though admittedly that's partly due to the standard of rabbit dishes in London being generally pretty poor, it was still a wonderful thing to behold. Utterly perfectly timed on the charcoal so that every last corner of the flesh was as moist and tender as possible, it was sat on a silky-smooth mustard-butter (I think) sauce and greens to soak up all of the juices. Oh, and two delicate slivers of crisp, flame-touched bacon that almost dissolved in the mouth they were so translucently thin.

The Coach cheeseburger is a solid new top-5 entry in the London burger charts, and has an interesting development story. After coming up with the usual arrangement of meat, cheese, tomato and lettuce bound with various condiments, Harris offered it to his son, whose immediate response was to say "get rid of everything apart from the meat and cheese". What they've ended up with then, is a thing of stripped-back, stark beauty, relying on the insanely good beef from butcher HG Walter with a decadent loose texture and a slice of bubbly raclette cheese. A further concession to fancypantsness is a bun glazed with bone marrow butter, but this doesn't distract from the beef, just adds an extra mysterious meaty note. It's a seriously brilliant burger.

Mussels in a thick bacon, leek and cider cream sauce came with a generous portion of the same excellent chips (bistro style - not too thick, not too thin) that arrived with the cheeseburger, and made another comfort-blanket of a winter dish.

And rhubarb meringue was the one dessert I've managed to find room for so far, but was, like everything else, intelligently conceived and executed, with just the right amount of sweetness and cream alongside the stewed fruit.

Those lucky enough to have enjoyed Harris' food when he was in Knightsbridge will have no doubt been waiting for this latest venture - or rather, ventures - with huge anticipation. And long story short, if you loved him there you'll love him here, too - that same innate mastery of technique and ingredient knowhow is still very much in evidence even as the price points have significantly shrunk.

But more than that, the fact that Harris has managed to team up with a partner who seems more than capable of showcasing his talents across three venues simultaneously (Harris describes himself more as an Admiral of the Fleet than chef-director, but was in the kitchen on at least one of the days I visited) is a huge cause for optimism about a London dining scene that seems under fire on all sides lately from economic pressures, staff shortages and closures (did anybody say Brexit?). If this is where things are going, then we should all breathe a hugh sigh of relief, and thank Henry Harris and team for their risk and their considerable efforts. Not forgetting, of course, once you've done all that, to jolly well go and eat there too.



Lizzie said...

I work opposite and you went three times and DIDNT TELL ME ONCE??? Are we even friends?????

Anonymous said...

I went tonight and had a shocking experience. The bread (which is not free) is stale and dry. The chips that came with the onglet was at best average pub chips. The onglet itself was not cooked well - very chewy. The duck breast was quite nice but nothing extraordinary. It was a big disappointment after reading raving reviews from not only you but quite a number of other critics. Did we go to the same restaurant!? Just shockingly bad.