Knowingly – defiantly – casual…
(apparently *excited hand rubbing*)
As some of you may remember I wrote about a visit from the somewhat scary Jay Rayner in July and that we were waiting with baited breath to see if he was going to sink us in one foul swoop of an Observer page… But he didn’t. In fact he was pretty blinkin’ nice about us. So here is the review in full:
“The whizzy bells-and-whistles website for the Crooked Well, a smart new food pub in south London’s Camberwell, which was previously a French gaff and before that an old boozer, tells you an awful lot about the place. Beneath each of the entries on the index is a single verb. Beneath “Menu”, for example, it says “Eating”. Beneath “Contact” it says “Talking”. Beneath “About Us” it says “Knowing”.
They couldn’t be more right on the last one. There is something very knowing indeed about the Crooked Well, a sense that they have targeted their product with laser-guided precision. I am accused, pace my recent words about Scarborough, of being rude only about places outside London while ignoring the complexities of districts right under my nose. Well, few pubs could be closer to my nasal hairs than this joint, which is a mile from my house and sums up perfectly the bitter contradictions of village London. A hundred or so metres from the front door is full-on Camberwell with its vibrant, sometimes brutal, down-at-heel street scene. It is scuffed, inner-city London. Sometimes it is fabulous; sometimes it is intimidating and a right old pain in the arse.
The Crooked Well, just round the corner, is middle-class Boho London, as if what was nearby didn’t exist. The night we were there a vividly painted double-decker bus, part of a project involving the great old man of British pop art Peter Blake, was parked outside. Eventually Blake himself came to sit at a group table beneath a couple of his own works recently donated to the pub. Being impeccably Boho middle class we all made a point of not noticing. The management were careful to flag this event in advance on their website, as they are their jazz nights, their bring-your-own-wine nights, their fish-and-chip Fridays, their coffee mornings and their commitment to British food. The staff met and/or worked variously at Babylon, Petrus, Le Gavroche and the Hotel and Bistro du Vin group. This, then, is all that gloss and polish distilled down to something defiantly – knowingly – casual.
For the most part it works. Some of the pricing is very keen indeed. A changing dish listed as soup and bread costs just £4.50. The night we were there it was a big bowl of gazpacho – British schmitish – with, on the side, a hunk of sourdough toast spread with carefully picked white crab. The soup could have done with a little more of a kick, but even so it was a butch bit of summer in a tureen. Even £7.50 for a plate of very good smoked salmon, scattered with rounds of sweet, crunchy pickled cucumber and halved soft-boiled quail eggs, doesn’t seem extortionate.
The mains – a rib-eye with Café de Paris butter, duck confit with chorizo and chickpeas, sole with broad beans, anchovies and capers – have a familiar urban-rustic feel. They broadcast their hearty, ingredient-led, cosmopolitan world view with every dot and comma. This is food for Londoners who have been places. More thrilling are the dishes for two: a whole poached sea bass with fennel and samphire, for example or – the one we chose – a rabbit and bacon pie.
It arrived in a fiercely hot dish, the puff-pastry lid inflated and golden. It looked right, and was. Inside, the bunny had been stewed until all muscle-memory had collapsed and it was just thick strands of meat spun through with hunks of salty bacon and soft pearl-like silverskin onions. A smear of Dijon mustard and the job was done. This is one of those dishes that the part-work method of restaurant cookery serves very well. Make the rabbit mix long ahead of time and then just whack on the pastry shell when the order comes in.
The same system worked less well with desserts, which were all a bunch of things sitting around just waiting to be plated, like party guests who didn’t know each other. A nice enough flourless almond cake, a pleasant elderberry panna cotta, and a pile of gooseberries sat on a plate, as if assembled from a buffet at random. Likewise a serviceable white-chocolate parfait was vaguely introduced to a strawberry compote. Then again they served this to us under the gun when our babysitter called us home because our youngest was playing up. (Dan, if you ever do that again…) The fact is that, while I may be pointing up the essential comedy of London’s inner-suburban hipsters, anybody living within striking distance of such a food pub would be very pleased indeed to have it. Which is exactly what I am.”
You have here some very happy Crooked Wellians. And thankyou, as ever, for your continued support.
Also, watch this space for a wicked Halloween plan…