Tuesday, 2 August 2022

The Baring, Islington

You'll often hear it said that while the country as a whole boasts many great gastropubs, London - where by all accounts the movement began in the 90s with the Eagle in Farringdon - doesn't have any. This is not quite true. The Draper's Arms is by anyone's standards a fantastic Pub With Good Food, a place you can just as easily turn up and have a quiet pint at the bar as sit down for a plate of duck hearts and roast grouse, and it's one of my favourite places in the world. But it's still true that for whatever reason (and I'm baffled as to why), the capital can not hold onto the simple notion of a pub and restaurant simultaneously - they tend to either quietly involve into one (the Harwood Arms, now just a restaurant, not a pub) or the other, where a meagre offering of microwaved chicken tenders and curly fries exist only to soak up the alcohol.

The Baring, then, is playing a delightfully old-school game, attempting to serve elevated pub dishes while still retaining the feel of a friendly neighbourhood dog-friendly boozer. It's been given a lick of paint and new upholstery since it traded as the Poet as recently as a few weeks' back, and though the walls and furnishings could do with a few softer elements to lessen the rather echoey soundscape, it's clear some thought has been given to how to be both a restaurant and pub at the same time, with some tables left bare for walk-in drinks, and others set with cutlery and glasses for dinner.

Snacks were familiar on one level, and yet with a touch of the extra. For example a little plate of saucisson from the Basque Pyrenees made from Ibaïama pigs I'd not been familiar with before, which had a lovely dense salty flavour. And not just salted nuts but sugared and salted cashews, like they do at Rules bar, as dangerously addictive here as in Maiden Lane.

I'm going to start the menu proper with my only real moan about the Baring - the way they serve their mackerel starter. When I see 'charred mackerel' on a menu, I don't think I'm out of sorts to expect a freshly torched specimen, with a crisp layer of blackened skin encasing melting fat and firm flesh. For whatever reason, the Baring serve theirs almost cold, with a soft, soggy skin and dressed in a couple of twigs of rather offputtingly slimy succulent. In their favour, the salmorejo (kind of a thicker gazpacho) was absolutely gorgeous and had it been the only thing on the plate ironically would have scored pretty highly. But whether through accident or misguided design, the mackerel was no good. Sorry.

But everything else was great. Skewered quail was perfectly cooked and seasoned, the chilli and yoghurt accompaniments just fresh and hot enough to provide a nice interesting battle for the tastebuds.

Chips - triple-cooked, obviously - were crunchy and soft in all the right places, with lots of lovely bits to fish out from the bottom of the bowl at the end and dip in the provided garlic mayo.

And finally the mains were a masterclass in mature, confident gastropub cooking. Suckling pig loin was a superbly generous portion (so much so we struggled to finish it and then couldn't find room for desserts) in an excellent glossy jus, and the white bean and spring green mixture soaked up the sauce wonderfully.

But even better was lamb, served both as neatly sliced and perfectly cooked rump and a little skewer of kofte, charred to a crisp outside but lovely and moist within. Add to this a homemade babaghanoush which tasted of an autumn log fire, and another one of those marvellous glossy sauces, and you have what is surely the best lamb dish I've eaten so far in 2022. And I don't think there's much chance of it being bettered this year, either.

It seems almost a shame to mark the Baring down after they did so much so right, but there's no avoiding the fact that mackerel dish wasn't very nice, and so this is perhaps a kitchen on the road to perfection rather than with perfection already in its sights. But there's nothing wrong with that - we all have to start somewhere - and I'm sure before too long you could choose from the intelligent and tasteful menu without fear of hitting a dud. Joining a very exclusive list of London gastropubs that still definitely are pubs, the Baring will I'm sure before too long become a reliable staple, and a star of Islington. I wish them all the best.


I was invited to the Baring and didn't see a bill. Think it would have been about £50pp with booze.

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