Many people have pointed out to me that as a comedian not in his twenties or skinny jeans, I should play golf. So I do, partly to keep comedy through stereotypes alive and well, and partly because I really like playing golf. I usually play at Wimbledon Common, and very occasionally at Royal Wimbledon, which is rather less common. Their clubhouses are almost next door to one another, in much the same way the Goods were next to Margo and Jerry’s or Peckham is adjacent to Greenwich. Up the road is a pub I have been visiting for several years called The Fox and Grapes which used to serve (a little incongruously) some of the best tapas in London, both in terms of dishes and value for money. I have very fond memories of their Serrano ham and pickled figs, and they imported stuff directly from Spain with a lack of fuss that would leave Borough Market dumbstruck. I even seem to remember ostrich salami served as though it was the most normal thing in the world to get elbowed (winged?) out of the way by one while ordering at the bar in Barcelona.
To my immense disappointment new management took over and so did a new menu – small sharing plates and more traditional noughties gastropub food that would have been fine if it hadn’t suffered in comparison with what had gone before. It remained a good place for lunch, even if you didn’t rush there from the 18th green with such haste as before. However, on a visit last year with fellow comedian and golf partner Wayne Deakin, it was pretty clear something else was up. I have mentioned the pub in a previous blog, having popped in only to be stung with what was quite a serious (£50) bill for a one course pub lunch. A quick Google revealed that the pub had been taken over again, this time by Claude Bosi, at which point the food nerds among you will start making funny noises. This is a serious chef with a capital serious, who famously relocated his own two Michelin starred Hibiscus from Ludlow to Mayfair in 2007 like an American buying a bridge, but with considerably more taste. I ate there in 2010 and it was so good it was intimidating – stunning food and immaculate service carried out by an army of staff which almost outnumbered the diners. A starter of scallop with pork pie sauce (the result of a happy accident involving pies not pretty enough to serve in their own right, chicken stock and a food processor, apparently) was a particular highlight. My only quibble with this level of ‘fine’ dining is that very finery – while undoubtedly excellent, the hushed reverence with which everything takes place just seems to make it harder to, well, you know…enjoy it.
As the loser of the Deakin/Barrie 2012 series, I owed Wayne lunch, and having just taken a pleasing 1½-½ lead in the 2013 series, I was feeling quite well disposed to the world and more amenable to giving The Fox & Grapes another go as I knew this time I wouldn’t be ambushed by the cost. I’d still be a bit perturbed by it, but at least I knew it was coming.
It was a lovely pub. Enough of the fittings have been retained to give the impression that it still is one, but there is also a slight formality to the room that heightens expectations and quietly lets you know that you should expect more than three types of bitter and some pork scratchings. Service was friendly and the staff do well to walk the fine line between pub and restaurant that the whole enterprise is attempting. So does the menu. There is much to enjoy here, with a nice variation between the traditional – fisherman’s pie, for instance, and the more cheffy – crispy ox tongue with sauce grebiche, or mutton pastilla.
A beautifully smooth chicken liver parfait with pear chutney is something a kitchen like this could be doing in its sleep – and the same can be said of excellent potted shrimps. The pastilla was the star – the heavier tang of mutton slightly greasing the pastry and complimented by a radish, spring onion and pearl barley cous cous. Buttered greens were buttered greens for which I suppose £4 was not completely ridiculous.
Sorry to harp on, but I still find myself quibbling (not for the first time,) about money. I think they can argue that they are doing very good food at relatively modest prices – starters hovering around £8, mains starting at £11.50 going up to £16 for the pastilla – but £4 seems fairly hefty for bread, even if the butter is from Gloucestershire. And who really goes to a pub at lunchtime to spend £31.50 on steak and chips, no matter how Scottish, Buccleuch and Tenderloin Fillet it is? Wayne Deakin certainly doesn’t. Well, not when I’m paying he doesn’t. He has the beef sandwich – which was perfectly acceptable even if it was still just a beef sandwich and we weren’t as excited by the chips as we wanted to be.
All told, our bill, with soft drinks and a 12.5% service charge, came in at £68, which is not bad for this standard of cooking. The problem is that if I want this standard of cooking, I’m probably prepared to pay a bit more for it, in a restaurant, with a bottle of wine and a sense of occasion. It is not necessarily what I want in a pub lunch. Maybe it is my fault for looking back with rose tinted spectacles, and it has to be said they were doing relatively brisk business for a Monday lunchtime, so maybe I am in the minority. I may even be guilty of being somewhat unfair – Hibiscus is too formal, The Fox & Grapes isn’t formal enough – but I don’t think so. The former is superb if you like that sort of thing, but the latter is just a little too schizophrenic for my liking, neither Royal nor common, and I think we’ll be looking elsewhere for our 19th hole in future. Unless of course I win the 2013 series, in which case I think we should probably check out Hibiscus again, just for balance, and that bottle of wine. And Wayne can get the bill.