Friday, 21 September 2018

The Hero of Maida, Maida Vale

Usually I write up my restaurant visits in chronological order, for my own sanity more than anything else, but given the most significant meal following that rather disappointing dinner on the Walworth Road was (spoiler alert) another rather disappointing dinner on the Walworth Road, for the sake of variety I'm instead going to skip forward a few days to Maida Vale and the latest and greatest Henry Harris gastropub The Hero of Maida.

As much as anything in the restaurant world is a sure-thing, the ability of Harris and his business partner James McCulloch to aquire, beautifully renovate and reinvigorate handsome old London pubs is something approaching a given. I have not stopped raving about the Coach in Clerkenwell to anyone who would listen (and many who won't) since I first went back in February, and countless lunches there since (it's quite handy for the office) have done nothing to dissuade me that this is one of the absolute best way of spending your dinner money. I loved the food at Racine in Knightsbridge when Harris was cooking there, but it was quite pricey and the room a bit frilly and old-school. The Coach took all that was good about Racine - namely, the kind of classy French/British game and seafood cooking that you'd travel continents to eat - and served it in a no-nonsense (albeit smartly dressed) Clerkenwell boozer where you could just as happily drop in for a pint as you could sit down to a lavish multi-course spread and finish up with a nice Armagnac by the fire. I love the Coach. I love it.

And I love the Hero of Maida too, so much so that following a blindingly good evening there as a guest when it first opened I wasted very little time in organising a return visit, in game season. Because of all my happy memories of Racine, it's trips in late summer and happy evenings picking at the bones of a roast grouse that have brought me the most joy. These guys really know how to cook a grouse.

But first, a little starter of colourful seasonal veg, beets and squash and rocket pesto, with sourdough croutons for a bit of crunch and all seasoned beautifully. The lighter beetroot (I think it was) underneath had been sliced thin and soaked in oil like a carpaccio, and that and the pesto, with its punch of garlic, brought to mind the late Mediterranean summer. You really couldn't ask for much more from a salad.

Mains were all, also, essentially unimprovable. The rabbit dish from the Coach also makes an appearance at the Hero, and is just as wonderful here, without a hint of dryness (quite an achievement if past experiences with restaurant rabbit are anything to go by), hung with smoke from the grill, and topped with shards of Alsace bacon so fragile and translucent it's like eating pressed bacon floss. Served on a plate of silky smooth mustard sauce, it's a masterclass in French cooking, yet somehow far more at home here reinvented as a £16 gastropub main than something from a stuffy Parisian bistro.

Devilled kidneys is traditionally a more solidly British affair, but even here some fancy French techniques (particularly a very nice pommes purée) have been put to judicious use to give the whole thing a bit more oomph. Between this and the Guinea Grill's version of the dish on toast, I doubt I could choose a favourite, but when why should anyone have to choose? You should make it your mission to try both.

And then of course, there's the grouse. To say I'm obsessed with these funky little game birds is an understatement - I will never pass on an opportunity to eat them, and no matter what the presentation, from the Parkers Arms version served off-the-bone and dressed in local blackberries, to the Holborn Dining Room's beautiful grouse pithivier, if you're serving, I'm buying. But hand on heart, if I had to just eat one style of grouse for the rest of my life, it would be as above - with delicate golden game crisps, on toast soaked in foie gras, alongside bread sauce and salty, rich armagnac jus. The flesh of the bird was soft and gently pink, and with that ever-so-slightly bitter taste of fresh moorland and heather. It was worth the journey by itself - in fact it justified the existence of the whole restaurant by itself.

On this occasion, we didn't have dessert, but I know from the Coach that Harris puts just as much effort into the pastry section as he does the savouries. Instead, we paid up - the bill inflated slightly by the £32.50 grouse but overall not an unreasonable amount of money for such quality - and jumped on the bus home.

It's inevitable given how brilliantly things have gone so far - though should be no less of an astonishing achievement nonetheless - that Harris & McCulloch already have their sights on a fourth branch of their... I hate calling it a chain but I suppose that's what it is now, albeit an extremely high-end one. Yes the next in the chain is to be the Harlot in Chiswick, of which details at the moment are scarce but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they'll serve high-end British/French gastropub cuisine in a lovely room, and it will be just as much fun as all the others. It's nothing short of incredible what these people are doing; ask anyone in the business and they'll tell you running one top gastropub is a constant battle, never mind four of the damn things at once. But if anyone can, these guys can. And we are all the richer for their efforts.



Anonymous said...

Did they not charge you for that starter?

Chris Pople said...

Anon: No, sorry should have mentioned that but that didn't appear on the bill.