Wednesday 15 November 2023

The Devonshire, Soho

There's no avoiding the fact, and there's no point dancing around it. There's no need for lengthy, thoughtful or measured arguments; no sense in analysing the details. There needs to be no slow and steady building of a case, culminating in a grand and weighty conclusion. The truth is so stark and self-evident that I may as well just state it up front and let you get on with your day: The Devonshire in Soho is probably the best pub in London, and possibly even the country.

That there's a new gastropub worth visiting in London, a city which - with one or two notable exceptions - has hitherto hardly been blessed with many classics in the genre - is remarkable in itself. Most places find proximity to local suppliers and lower Not London rents to be crucial factors in their success, which is why despite the capital being home to 9 million people it is rather unrepresented on the reliable Top 50 list, with only one spot in the top 10. The Devonshire would unquestionably be one of the best gastropubs in the country if it had popped up in Devon or Lancashire or rural Kent. That it exists steps away from Piccadilly Circus, in a corner of Soho so soaked with potential customers it could (like every other pub in Soho) have offered frozen Brakes Brothers pub favourites from a laminated menu jauntily decorated with the British flag and still made a killing, is a miracle. Well, it's the first miracle.

The reason it's not just good but brilliant, comes from an almost superheroic attention to detail. Let's start at the "pub" section downstairs, which is cozy and comfortable in the finest pub tradition, with snugs behind the bar and what they're calling a "family room" at the back where Irish musicians gather on Tuesdays. There's a wide - and interesting - selection of beers including craft stars Verdant and Deya, but there's also the small matter of - their words - the Best Pint Of Guinness In London, a claim which, based on my own observations, very much seems backed up by the evidence. And yes, it's already crazily popular, but - at least in my experience - bar staff are so practiced and efficient that you won't have to wait more than a couple of minutes to get served. Miracle number two.

Miracle number three is at work in the restaurant upstairs. Ashley Palmer-Watts - yes that one - works an open grill at one end of the room. Beside him, members of his kitchen brigade gingerly feed lumps of oak wood into a terrifying flame-belching furnace, in a manner that suggests if they didn't, the whole range would roar its disapproval, tear itself away from the wall and roam the streets of Soho looking for sustenance. According to Palmer-Watts, cooking on embers is difficult - "which is probably why almost nobody does it", but is worth it because of the extra flavour the oak embers impart on the food.

And my lord, what food. Perhaps you might expect a man who once held three Michelin stars to know his way around a kitchen, but I can tell you from experience that there's no guarantee the skills required in a world famous fine dining restaurant translate comfortably to a pub grill. But Palmer-Watts looks not just comfortable here but positively beaming, happily chatting with customers, bouncing from grill to grill with enthusiasm and grace. And as I'm about to explain, every bit of that enthusiasm and personality sings from every dish on the menu at the Devonshire.

We start, though, with bread. And if you thought that the Devonshire might go down a tried-and-trusted route like sourdough, then you haven't been paying attention. What we have here is glazed brioche, baked throughout the day so that every batch is warm out of the oven. My favourite San Diego steakhouse Cowboy Star is famous for their brioch-y buns, and I've spoken at length in the past about how good they are. These are better. They are salty on the outside, golden brown and glowing, and inside so stretchy and moreish you want to eat another one (spread with the room-temperature butter) as soon as you've finished your first. This is a world class bread course.

So the rest of the food? Obviously, it's all brilliant too. Scallops were giant sweet things, seared to a lovely crust, dressed in an interesting bacon-vinegar dressing which sounds a bit basic while I type it out but was actually probably the best scallop dish I've had ever. You'll be hearing me say "best ever" a lot in this post. I'm sorry if it gets boring.

I'm going to talk about the rest of the food before I come back to the langoustines - I'll explain why later. This is a stunningly good, dry-aged chunk of fillet steak, with a fantastic salty crust on the outside but inside tender and medium-rare and wonderful. It was presented with a peppercorn sauce which at first seemed quite thin, but then you realise it's supposed to be used as a kind of vinaigrette, sparingly and carefully, like a kind of French chimichurri. Used in small amounts it complimented the beef perfectly. And I never want normal peppercorn sauce again.

Duck fat chips were crunchy and addictive, definitely worth an order. I mean, of course they are.

And this giant Iberico chop, timed to just pink in the middle, which melted in the mouth like porky heaven. These pigs are apparently from Ledbury chef Brett Graham's own farm, because I suppose if you have a chance to source your pork from one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, you just do. Nothing - and I do mean nothing - on the menu at the Devonshire is anything less than exceptional, a supreme achievement in sourcing, managing and cooking that shows every stage of the process and every person involved knows exactly what they're doing.

But the langoustine. Oh, the langoustine. I'm sure if I tell you that these are the best langoustine I've ever had in my life you have an inclination to think I'm overstating. I know I'm prone to exaggeration, I realise that, it's an issue. But I have eaten langoustine all over the UK and the world, and you have to believe me, these are the best langoustine I've ever had in my life. They start with the very best product - Loch Fyne beasties, sweet and fresh. That would be enough already. But then they glaze them with an emulsion that's made of "langoustine butter, prawn stock, cream mayonnaise, lemon juice and white soy" (again thank you Hotdinners) which somehow ends up tasting many, many times greater than the sum of its parts. Salty, buttery, spritzed with citrus, brushed with wood smoke, these were langoustine designed to ruin all other langoustine. Breathtakingly good.

We ended with a chocolate mousse with boozy cherries, and a Grand Marnier soufflé, theatrically flambéed tableside. With a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream dropped on top, it was both a dramatic and fitting end to a wonderful meal, but also a nod to the fine dining traditions where the head chef made his name. And you haven't lived until you've greedily scooped up the very last morsels of pudding soaked in orange brandy.

It's barely a couple of weeks since the Devonshire opened its doors, and yet it already feels settled and timeless, a grand old lady of London pubs. Partly that is of course because it occupies a handsome and lovingly restored Victorian building, although how much of the interior is original and how much a very tasteful recreation and reinvention perhaps only the owners will know. Those owners, by the way, are Oisin Rogers (formerly of the Guinea Grill) and Charlie Carroll (of the amazing Flatiron chain) and they have a bit of experience in running fantastic pubs and serving fantastic food respectively, so there was a large part of me expecting to be impressed. But just how stunning every aspect of the Devonshire is completely blindsided me. I've been boring everyone I met since with stories of that bread, and those langoustine, and, well, everything else about the place. I'm booked to go back in a couple of weeks, and if it hadn't been completely booked solid I would have gone earlier.

I'll stop now; if you aren't convinced by this point the Devonshire is worth your time, then you never will be. Every moment spent thinking and talking about the place is time better spent going there and enjoying it, and I suggest you do exactly that as soon as you can. If you want to know just how good a pub and kitchen can be, look no further than the corner of Denman and Sherwood streets, and this towering achievement in hospitality. I'll see you there.


I was invited to the Devonshire for the above meal, but I have been back a couple of times on my own dollar and am booked for another visit in a couple of weeks' time. Apologies for the terrible photos, my main camera has died and the above - aside from the exterior, which I grabbed from the Devonshire website - were taken with my iPhone.


Anonymous said...

And now that there are *two* exceptions to the rule (the other being The Lyric), I'll have to withdraw that statement that no pub in Soho is better than mediocre.

Chris Pople said...

The Lyric is indeed lovely, if you can get in! Seems about the only time you have a clear run at the bar is mid-afternoon...

Alex C said...

Looks amazing - thans so much for a great review.
Once they're taking bookings again I'll have a go but certainly they're done until 2024 with no reservation possible for a bit. Sounds perfect though.
All the best