Tuesday 28 February 2023

The Fat Crab, Clapham

One of the best things about being a food blogger in London, and especially as one that has been going as bloody long as I have, is that you generally get to see each of the great global cuisines, or at least global restaurant styles, tackled increasingly successfully. There's Padella nailing pasta, for example, after years of places serving overcooked mush; the Meatwagon finally showing the UK what a proper West Coast burger looked like; Hawksmoor proving that it is, after all, possible to run a top-end US steakhouse using the best British beef. All of the elements on my personal wish list have been more or less ticked off over the years, most recently Tacos Padre and their brilliantly authentic Baja fish tacos.

But there's one style of cuisine, a personal favourite of mine, that we have so far been missing in the capital. The Southern American boil is an ostensibly straightforward, rustic affair - mixed seafood, seasoned (usually with Old Bay but sometimes house spices) and boiled in a plastic bag with potatoes, sausages and corn, opened theaterically directly onto your tabletop and to which you tuck in (suitably bibbed up of course) with your bare hands. It's great fun, and though I've never been to the Southern States I've been told the Crab Hut mini-chain, based in San Diego, is a very authentic reproduction. I loved it, anyway.

On paper, Fat Crab is doing nearly everything right. Of course, the prices are necessarily higher than they are in Louisiana, but you should not be paying bargain prices for things like lobster, crab or crayfish under any circumstances. It seems to wear its authenticity lightly at first, but despite offering langoustine and Norwegian snow crab the method and the approach seems very Southern, with everything cooked in plastic bags and with a customisable level of spiciness in the seasoning.

Things started well enough. Fried Baby Rice Crab is not something I've seen out of North America (and yes I am aware they're all over SE Asia too), so was a delight to be able to try them in London for the first time, the experience of crunching down on an entire deep-fried crab not to be missed (honestly). They arrived smartly, were piping hot, seasoned correctly and great fun to eat. And they were the very last thing that went right in the entire lunch.

I thought it was a good sign that the crayfish (sorry, craw fish) had 'Seasonal' stamped next to them on the menu - surely they would be boiled from live, like in the States? Well, no. Clearly these had been cooked, and frozen, a long while ago, then reheated for far too long, their sad, squishy shells only reluctantly giving up woody, tasteless flesh. The house hot sauce tasted - bizarrely - lovely, buttery and lemony and with a nice cajun kick, but the thin liquid sat in a pool at the bottom of the bag and didn't work as a seasoning at all, just as a kind of dip.

"Local" brown crab (from Dorset actually, which is the kind of definition of "local" that only makes sense in the USA) was a little better, the claws plump and the body containing plenty of lovely soft brown meat. And the clams we had optioned into the mix were tasty too - the shells caught plenty of the house seasoning and survived the reboiling process much better than everything else.

But unfortunately, with the mains we were served frozen fries. And I don't mean they were previously frozen fries served hot, I mean they literally arrived frozen, frosty to the touch. We sent them back, and then eventually once we had finished off the crab and clams and however much more of the mushy crayfish we could stomach, they came back. They were fine.

It should be no surprise, given everything that happened, that I'm not going to recommend the Fat Crab. But what's frustrating is that beneath the incompetent service (at one point they left a bottle of warm, cork-sealed wine on the table for a good 10 minutes with no way of us getting into it), the shoddy cooking and the weird cramped surroundings (there's nowhere near enough room to properly empty the bags out, US-style, so you end up picking food out of the plastic a morsel at a time, like a packet of crisps) there's the germ of a real Southern US concept, albeit one they're quite a way away from realising. All they need to do is improve every aspect of the restaurant experience they offer, and they'd be on to a winner! There's my advice for them.

Anyway onwards and upwards, and the search for a proper seafoid boil most definitely goes on. Perhaps someone can persuade Bea Vo of Stax Diner to relaunch the crayfish boils she did a few years ago under the arches at Borough, using lovely live crayfish from Crayfish Bob. They were great fun. But maybe the logistics of running a crayfish restaurant in the UK are just too prohibitive, and we just need to travel 4000 miles for our boils? I hope I'm proved wrong.

You'll notice they didn't take the frozen fries off the bill - disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising. We paid the £122 for a rather stressful and unrewarding lunch and went off to drown our sorrows in the Fox & Hounds, where there was a lot more table room and a lot less frozen food. Maybe one day, I will sit down to a steaming bag of crab and crayfish and cajun fries and tuck my bib in and spend a happy hour tearing apart perfectly cooked seafood and ending up covered in crab meat and clam juice and walk away from the experience happy, but this day is not that day. And until that day, you'll be best advised to avoid the Fat Crab.


Thursday 23 February 2023

The Pelican, Notting Hill

While I think the Top 50 Gastropub list is largely great, every year when it's announced there is the same grumbling about how some of the nominated places are best described as 'restaurants that operate out of a pub building' than pubs. I have long argued that to be considered for inclusion in the list punters should be able to go in and order just a drink and a packet of crisps (Scampi Fries ideally) and not be made to feel bad for taking up valuable eating space. So this then would exclude the Sportsman (who haven't allowed 'just drinks' for ages), the Hand & Flowers, the Crown at Burchett's Green and many other admittedly very nice places that just aren't pubs.

The good news about the Pelican (number 92 on the list) is that it's very much a pub. You can just pop in for a drink - plenty do - and there's a good sized bar area (and very handsome bar) for just mingling with friends without being made to feel like you're denting their gross profits. But while you can go to the Pelican just for drinks, at the same time you'd be silly to, because the food coming out of their kitchens is up there with the best any gastropub offers anywhere.

First to arrive, which also neatly reflected the enthusiasm in which it was ordered, was spider crab toast. A generous amount of crab, dotted with chives and dusted with paprika, came slathered on house sourdough and divided into four portions. The very existence of 'spider crab' toast on the Pelican menu speaks to a kitchen attempting to do something a little above the usual gastropub offering. The last time I saw spider crab on a menu, in fact, was at the Parkers Arms - not bad company to be in.

Monkfish "scampi" were tender, meaty little nuggets of fresh fish with a very addictive marie-rose style dip. One of the defining charcteristics of the most recent (and most successful) gastropubs is that the pescatarian, the vegetarian and the omnivore are all given equally attractive options across the board - no token mushroom risotto and 'fish of the day' (that will farmed seabass then) here thankyouverymuch.

But of course meat-eaters, and specifically offal-lovers, don't have anything to complain about at the Pelican either. Bone marrow - two huge portions - came expertly roasted in the St John style, with a brilliant sharp parsley dressing and more of that lovely house sourdough. £2 cheaper here than St John, too.

It was with the arrival of the mince on toast - in of itself an impressive bit of work with deliriously butter-drenched beef topped with grated parmesan - that we realised we had accidentally ordered quite a few dishes that involved bread. This is nobody's fault but ours, but my advice to you is to keep the number of "things on toast" to no more than two so you have more room for other lovely things.

Beef tartare was dressed, quite innovatively, with gentleman's relish (anchovy paste), thus neatly combining two of my favourite things in the world to eat. I also always admire the effort that went into making their own house crinkle-cut crisps, which were a great foil for the beef.

And finally, "5th quarter" (offal) pie, a splendidly bronzed thing packed full of offaly bits and pieces, and served with one of those wonderful glossy meat sauces that has clearly taken someone a very long time to make. With it, in case we hadn't quite ingested enough carbohydrates by this point, was a pretty little portion of mashed potato boasting a ratio of potato to butter of (I'm guessing) around 1 to 10. This is, of course, a good thing.

We had, as you might have gathered by now, ordered way too much food for two people, not out of greed (well alright, not JUST out of greed) but also because the fairly large menu had way too many things on it we'd regret not ordering. I'm already making plans, perhaps after pay day, to go back and try the £75 lobster and monkfish pie (for two), and I bet the duck leg with red cabbage is worth a look-in too. But even with over-ordering the bill only came to £60 each including service, which is pretty good going these days.

Gastropubs - proper gastropubs - like the Pelican do not come along very often, and even more rarely (for a reason I'm yet to fully fathom) do they land in central London. In fact, I think only the Drapers Arms in Islington and the Red Lion and Sun in Highgate, both longstanding favourites of mine, can give it a run for its money and provide that glorious combination of unpretentious watering hole and top-tier modern British food, where how much advantage you take of either is left entirely up to you (and maybe the Audley in Mayfair, although that's pushing the definition of 'unpretentious' somewhat). So thank God for all these people who truly 'get' how to do gastropub, and let's hope they all continue to get the custom - and plaudits - they deserve.


Apologies, for one final time, for the terrible iPhotos. I have finally been reacquainted with my camera battery charger, and future photos will be (slightly) better.