The Warwick (The Gastro Half Marathon)

The Warwick in Pimlico was the venue for a Sunday lunch which will not soon be forgotten for food and service which were poles apart.

As Lou and I arrived at 1pm to meet O and Meister there were only a handful of tables occupied. Designed from the gastro pub by numbers manual it’s a mix of mismatched tables and chairs, benches on stripped floors. Asking for a pint of Royal London, one of only three Ales (Green King IPA and Abbot Ale being the others) the barman seemed confused by my choice. Repeating my choice again I pointed at the pump. This first sign of the trend for the afternoon barely registered.
As the bar filled over the next 2 hours a definte division formed with a Nappy Valley developing in the lowered area. Getting from the table to the toilet became a mission, weaving round strollers, toddlers and their parents all blocking the passageway to the toilets.

The pace of the 3 staff increased with every new table, dashing from one side of the bar to another, in and out of the kitchen, nerves fraying, a scene of inefficient fire fighting. Plates were stacked at either end of the bar, constantly fed by annoyed diners clearing their own tables. The pile closest to Nappy Valley looking as if there could be a cascade of knives, forks and gravy at any second. Although this should have been our cue to leave the food looked and smelt great and watching what would unfold next was like strange voyeuristic theatre.
The danger to Nappy Valley is cleared by one of the kitchen staff, or perhaps even the chef, which could go some way to explain the near 60 minute wait for food. There are no thoughts of the chaos around us as we ravenously attack the Soft Shell Crab, Pan Fried Scallop and Seared Foie Gras. If the kitchen is at boiling point at this point it doesn't show as each dish cannot fail to impress, from good produce to presentation. The scallop and foie gras dishes while pan fried or seared are crisp from the pan but not overcooked, as is often be the case when diverting from normal pub menus. The accompanying carrot puree with the latter dish adds a subtle sweet edge to the richness of the main element. Its safe to say that appetites are sated and we are ready for the main courses.

We prise another bottle of Malbec (Mendoza 2007) from the bar after pointing it out on a stained and sodden wine list, an early casualty of the plate mountain. This sustains us for the 35 minute wait for three mains, the fourth coming 15 minutes afterward having been left off the order. All I can do is drool at the plates as the other three tuck in. The roasted cod looks good, though there seems to be a shortage of puy lentils. My roast pork belly arrives without any word of apology. Its at this point that my nerves start to fray slightly and I ask if they expect me to pay. The manager waves his hands around and mutters for me not to worry. He's probably contemplating that there are many hours of this left; with a group of weary London Marathon runners limping in medals round their necks. I'm thinking we deserve one at this point for the Nappy Valley Slalom and the Freestyle Drink Pointing. Despite all the grief it's certainly worth the wait. It has a thin scored crackling which delivers the required sweet fatty hit without picking it from the molars for the next week. The pork is moist, the accompanying veg, apple sauce and Yorkshire Pudding are all to a good standard.
Our own half gastro Marathon complete consensus at the table is that dessert may be a dish too far. Meister and myself leave quickly for a pint at Cask while the ladies settle the bill. We are seated and served when we receive a call to say that we need to guess the bill. They sound please with themselves. We have a little time to think before they arrive. Knowing that it should be in the region of £150 we are dumbfounded with the final bill after an expert complaint. £55. Was it the right bill that they discounted? How did they reach that amount? I'll probably never know if this was an isolated incident for The Warwick, as despite the fact it was hugely discounted and the food was superb there are plenty of places that can get both right. So, Gold medal for Lou and O for world class complaining, Silver to myself for the Slalom, Bronze to Meister for his choice and a wooden spoon to The Warwick.


Walkabout (can it ever be justified?)

Facing Shepherds Bush Empire I have a choice to make. O'Neills or Walkabout? Neither would be a choice I'd usually make but we're meeting before a gig and its one of the two, set either side the venue. So is it the Craic Den or something reminiscent of a Shearing Shed? With a chill passing through me I take a deep breath and head towards the neon of Walkabout.

Am I being unfair to this employer of hundreds of Aussies and Kiwis? This purveyor of quality student night outs, supporter of drunken hen and stag do's? I don't think so. Every Aussie I know has a healthy disregard for it and those who don't I would seriously questions as suitable company. Tolerating it only for AFL coverage and familiar beer. They would doubtless choke on their VB if they saw the claim that its an "authentic Australian bar chain". Authentic 1920s Drovers Station possibly.

On my last visit to the Upper Street outpost (to watch AFL with Meister) a psychotic customer took off his shirt and beating his tattoed chest screamed at his barfly companion that he was going to "rip his face off". The manager, without a moment of hesitation said "look mate. I've told you before... Do it again and your barred". What would you have to do to get barred from a Walkabout? Actually rip his face off?

There's the dubious appropriation of aboriginal culture and iconography in the name and the design, there is the use of the word "dunnie", there is the full size ping pong table which makes me think I'm in a hostel or a sanitorium, there's the Steinlager which the barmaid could only describe as being from New Zealand, with an expression on her face that said "look it tastes like piss but what do you expect for £2". There is the use of the word "Awesome" on their website, the over use of which is anything but awesome. There is.... Well I could go on for hours.

Is there a plus side? Erm.... Well. This is difficult. I did see Alan Fletcher sing to a Freshers week crowd. Although this should be in the against argument the combination of numerous bottles of VB and Tooheys New, being neither a Fresher nor a student and seeing Dr Karl himself was a heady mix.

With the doors to the gig open and our party complete we headed out past the ping pong table to watch Angus and Julia Stone, who incidentally were excellent. They also hail from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder... Possibly at the thought of Walkabout? Bet they went to O'Neills.


The Roebuck (This Is England)

We arrive at the Roebuck from Richmond Park, hot and very thirsty. It's early evening and a smell of gravy laden Sunday lunches hits the nostrils as we enter. The interior is reassuringly unspectacular. It's a solid pub and has been since the 1700s, the smell confirming it hasn't been gastroed, which is surprising in these parts.

With a choice of London Pride, 330, Ascot Anastasia Stout, I start with the 330 and make my way onto the Stout.  Heading outside to take advantage of the remaining sun we cross the road and step down onto the wide public terrace running parallel with the road. On a spring evening in Richmond there is no better place to enjoy views of Richmond Park and down across the Thames, an idylic English scene of people simply messing about in boats.

Groups congregate on the benches and the railings either side of the terrace in a scene which is positively European. Through in a game of boules and it may not be England. Deciding to sit on the hedge that drops into the park a fellow drinker is swallowed whole. As we watch the sunset we watch as his legs flap and his girlfriend tries desperately to pull him out. Inevitably the crowd claps, cheers and laughs at this moment of pure slapstick before some eventually heave him out. He holds his hands up to the sky in appreciation of his public before checking his scratches. Spots of blood forming on his white Ralph Lauren polo he heads to where else but the bar. It could only be England.


Steins (what's the Wurst that could happen)

The skies over London have been quiet and free of emission trails for a few days now. Berlin was the weekend destination for Captain Engish and Hadedar but short of braving trains, ferries and buses they had no alternative but to concede to the volcanic ash cloud and recreate the German experience in London.

Saturday morning, the sun was shining and I one foot in the doghouse following a later than planned Friday night. The text came suggesting Katzenjammers and as much as I felt like sitting in a windowless cellar having hair of the dog (possible its entire back), a walk in the park was the order of the day. Late afternoon and an update. Common sense has prevailed (also known as Hadedar) and the trip to the cellar has been shelved in favour of Zeitgeist. The text simply read "In Zeitgeist, eating curry wurst and chips". At this point although the park and the Vitamin D had done me a world of good the thought of curry wurst was appealing, not to mention the prospect of a pint of Paulaner. I wouldn't have to wait too long as a further text suggested a Sunday afternoon at Steins in Richmond.  The prospect of an afternoon by the river and a few beers was a promising one.

Set off the towpath close to Richmond Bridge, Steins offers a Bavarian al fresco experience, serving traditional dishes and beer by the pint and stein. All seating is outdoors, the only indoors being a wood cabin housing the kitchen and the toilets.

As I arrive I find a English and Hadedar have found a table and guarding the extra place. I am handed a menu and told to take my place in the queue, order my food and beer, pay, collect my beer at a seperate queue and that the meal will be delivered to the table. The queue moves at a crawl with one person operating the till; slowly. What happened to German efficiency, or is that just a lazy stereotype?

Mission accomplished and stein of Paulaner Munchner in hand I return to the table, weaving through buggies and tightly pack tables. Within minutes my food arrives. Perhaps the system does work. The sausage is tasty as are the spicy potatoes (albeit over seasoned). There is an absence of sauerkraut which was part of the description and in its place a limp salad. I consider asking for it be added but expecting that there would be a queue for this I finish my meal and head to the bar for another Paulaner Munchner; ensuring my food receipt is at the ready. No beer is served without having ordered food, perhaps due to licence or to keep firmly focus on the family market.

On a warm day by the river in Richmond you cannot fail to have an enjoyable experience but still Steins didn't quite live up to the promise.  Ideal for families, the owners target market it benefits from not being overrun by loud groups interested only in drinking as many steins as possible, but could deliver more in terms of the food and the experience. For me it needs to be less works canteen and deliver more on its prime riverside spot. That said it was busy and doubtless will continue to be so. In short, enjoyable, not a destination in itself but they're are wurst places to spend a day by the river (sorry couldn't resist).


A Thirst for Politics?

With a May Election rapidly approaching its hard to ignore the relentless wave of news, whether it be the papers, TV, radio, blogs, tweets and whichever other way the sultans of spin have found to influence us. Rows of telepaths at Conservative HQ? It's an excuse for everyone including the humble blogger to devote countless hours and inches to the claims of identi-kit politicians.

Well I'm no different I'm afraid so if your mind is a political vacuum and you want it to stay that way turn away now or maybe take a moment to trap the cat instead. Studying the Labour manifesto, which I know we all do, I note that under a heading of protecting community life, Mr Brown claims to:

Understand that strong community life also depends on protecting the places in which people come together…The local pub and social club are also hubs of community life. Too many pubs have closed that could have been sustained by local people.

It's interesting to note that this is wheeled out as part of the manifesto rather than having acted on this decline over the last 13 years. The British Beer and Pub Association recently released figures to suggest that we are losing 28 pubs a week and has topped 58 per week at a peak. Naturally special interest groups shout from the pumps and beer cellars that we need to do something about this decline and link closures to this kind of political promise. But do we need to save pubs? Strange maybe for a pub blogger but I say broadly in towns and cities no we don't need to save them. A recession and harsher trading conditions are a great leveller for any service business. My rationale is that roughly speaking a bad business will fail and a well run one which is relevant to its customers - with good service, well kept beer and a sense of community will survive. These well run businesses may even prosper from the failure of less successful pubs. Yes, there are wider issues of the way the industry works but I think there is a certain truth in good businesses prosper, bad ones don't. We didn't save whole industries; the closure of which decimated whole towns, villages and regions so why start with saving pubs. Save the industries and you in turn save the pubs that serve the communities in which those industries are based. In smaller towns and villages where there may only be a handful of pubs, a declining population, property bought for weekend getaways, the argument is admittedly different and this is where Brown's measures could make a difference. The manifesto continues to claim that:

We will support pubs that have a viable future with a new fund for community ownership in 2010-11. Councils must take full account of the importance of pubs to the local community when assessing proposals that change their use, and we will make it more difficult to demolish pubs. Restrictive covenants applied by pub companies to property sales will be curbed and flexibility for pubs to provide related services promoted, making it easier to have live entertainment without a licence. A non-tie option should be available for pub tenants;

Obviously as a manifesto there are no definitions of viable future, the use of should and there seem to be no hard figures around the community fund. Is it all hollow electioneering? Will this community fund come of a lottery fund? Will Gordon even be around to carry it through? Only time will tell.

Right, I'm off for a beer, anyone know a good pub that's still open?


Canton Arms (next stop Haggis Toastie)

My appreciation of the Canton Arms seems to be growing with each visit. I need a weekly fix as a minimum and this week found myself sharing the fix over dinner.

Our meal for 4 (with Lou, Meister and O) had swelled to 7 when news spread that we were dining as well as drinking. Captain English dropping hints as big as his eyes when faced with a Fopp sale secured the invite with his other half, Hadedar. Making up the seven was Silvio; to whom I promised not to mention his recent appreciation of a corked bottle of wine. "Hmmmm. Interesting.... Its different. But I like it". His name has been changed (as with all) to protect his pride further. I mean its a mistake any Italian could make (well at least that's what he told us).

Enjoyment of the Canton starts with the ale board, which rarely disappoints. New to me were Tring Brewery's, Jock O'Legs, copper coloured with a hoppy bitter taste and Acorn Brewery's, Barnsley Bitter. At 3.8% this dark chestnut bitter could sustain for a session with its rich flavour.

The dining room was busy but securing a table was effortless (no bookings taken under 8 diners). Presented with the option of a Salt Marsh Lamb, slowly pot roasted for 7 hours, served with Boulangere Potatoes (my mouth is genuinely watering), there was no contest and a quick show of hands confirmed we had the required 4 to manage the dish. Starter was similarly an easy choice. There was no answer other than "yes" when Meister suggested the Foie Gras toastie to share. I rub my hands with glee at the prospect.

Neither course disappoints. The toastie had as much for its novelty value than the fact I love foie gras wasn't as rich as I thought. For £8 you aren't going to get masses of it but what you get is more than enough. accompanied by a chutney or relish it won't be the last time I sample this dish, or the further choice of haggis..
Served from the oven, the Lamb and Potatoes were placed in the centre of the table with serving spoon, fork and tongs. The Lamb had benefited from every minute of its 7 hours, the meet falling from the bone. The potatoes were the standout, crisp with a rich onion taste from white onions reduced to almost puree. I could order this on its own, although I don't think my belt has enough notches to cope.
The Canton goes from strength to strength. Next stop Haggis Toastie!


Stockwell Easter Crawl Pt 2: The Landor / The Surprise / The Cavendish

Moving on from the Marquis we headed for the Landor. Promising from the outside this North Clapham theatre pub had all the atmosphere of a bends chamber. This is the danger point of any crawl. You are 4 pubs in, and maybe 6 pints or more down. Spirits waning we necked them quickly and headed on before the will to carry on deserted us..

Crossing Clapham Road we made our way to the Surprise, just off Larkhall Park. A Youngs' pub, it fits the tag of a local boozer right down to the tumbleweed moment as the door creaked open and all eyes turned to us. Could this be another killer blow to the crawl?

A few locals sat in the small front bar and despite the initial tumbleweed we got a friendly enough reception. Well we made it out intact after another swift pint, though unlike the Landor I will probably return to the Surprise, even its just to find out what the Surprise is.

Heading on to the sixth and final pub of the crawl there wasn't any doubt as to which pub it would be. Set at the edge of a Stockwell estate is the Cavendish. You write this pub off as another estate. pub at your own peril. In fact it should itself be called the Surprise with the backroom Ballroom showcasing new comedy, music and on occasion burlesque. Added to which it's probably the only pub in London to have an occasional house organist. The on tap selection isn't huge with Greene King being the choice to round off the crawl. Standing at the bar chatting with the staff, there is a thought that if we started the crawl here we wouldn't have made it far. We'll defintely be back here for a full entry as it rightly deserves.

So 6 pubs down and the pint count pushing double figures, there is no thought of the head related sonsequences in the morning; thoughts more reserved for the pubs we missed (notably The Priory and the Canton). Surely an excuse for a second annual Stockwell Crawl. Or perhaps just next week.

Stockwell Easter Crawl Pt 1: The Grosvenor / Queens Head / Marquis of Lorne

A good night can often can turn into an impromptu pub crawl and planned pub crawls can in turn be mundane tick box exercises; dictated more by the proximity of the first to the second to the third pub. With this in mind Captain English and I set out on our Easter Crawl knowing only the starting point: The Grosvenor, Stockwell.

Set amongst council blocks and displaying posters for thrash metal gigs many would have second thoughts about our starting point. Having downed plenty of pints there in the past we had no such hesitation. Slightly down at heel and with a well used pool table its a reminder of student days spent in smokey pubs playing pool badly and feeding the jukebox. The crowd at 6pm on the Thursday was a mix of Portuguese tradesmen playing pool, a couple of old Irish pensioners sat supping at the bar and a group of students putting the world to rites as well as a barrel of cider. Being Cask Ale Week and feeling nostalgic I went for a Moorhouses Bitter, a hoppy session beer. A great start. Two pints down and we move on towards Brixton and the The Queens Head.

Formerly The Far Side, The Queens Head as it is now is far removed from The Grosvenor. Superficially it’s nicely renoavted, as premium lagers and one token ale. Adnams. My heart sinks at the sight of it and we opt for a cool pint of Erdinger. Large Gorillaz canvases adorn the walls, and although they are now on their third album, its still a touch that you would expect in about 2000. My thoughts overall would be that its nice. Not exceptional. It's proximity to the Brixton Academy would probably make it a good stop for a pre gig drink but otherwise I wouldn't make a point of stopping by. With that in mind we declined a second round and moved on.

It may be cliched to say that stepping into the Marquis of Lorne is like stepping back in time but in this case it is fitting. Approaching the pub you notice the original ornate tiles outside. It is hard to think many breweries or pubco's today would lavish money on something so ornamental. Much more likely to invest in a Sky subscription and a Big Screen. Thoughts of an interior to match are dashed as we get inside. This is pub three in our crawl, and as much a change from the Queens Head than is possible. On the inside its a faded boozer with character (or characters as the case may be). Looking round the pub seems to be pretty much exclusively regulars. The pool table is in constant use and there are signs that the dart board gets its fair share also.

After five minutes I take a call a call from Lou and step outside as I feel that along with a smoking ban phones should be next. I peer through the window to see that Captain English has made a new friend. Stepping back inside I am intoroduced to the Landlord, who's sat at the bar. He tells us about his improvements and plans for the pub, the area and how its changed. He's a South Londoner through and through and proud of his pub. It has to be said that he's had a few at this point but amiable with it. As he launches into a passionate description of his Garden he reaches over to his cigarettes tapping one on the box, lights up and casually chuffs away, waving the fag around as he talks. Now in saying its a step back in time you could date this as anywhere before 1st July 2007, when such a simple act wouldn't raise so much as an eyebrow. The barmaid, gave a concerned look toward the guvnor but he was plainly oblivious. Two pints and it was time to leave Summer 2007 and venture back to a cold 2010 and the next pub...


Crown and Sugarloaf

Asked to visualise a pub in Central London that served Bitter at £1.96 and lager not far above you would perhaps imagine a scene from Hogarth of ravaged alcoholics staring mournfully into their beer in an equally decrepit pub. A mobility scooter parked in the corner its basket in front full of dented tins and Special Brew. Such places exist but they certainly aren't the Crown and Sugarloaf or for that matter any of the other Sam Smith's pubs in Central London. Tucked away off Fleet Street its easy to imagine it once being a smoky joint serving Journalists and and printworkers. These days the clientele are more likely to be Bankers and Barristers.

Located so close to St Pauls and rich in original features you would expect it to be bustling but rarely is. Perhaps in part due to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (close to Dr Johnson's House) being a little further up Fleet Street or that tucked in an alleyway people simply detour to pubs on the main thoroughfare.

If you are looking for a pint of Stella or Guinness or anything else other than Sam Smiths you will be disappointed. Choice isn't a word that's used freely in a Sam Smith's pub nor is it a word that is really required. You've got a bitter, stout a couple of lagers and if you want anything else you are in the wrong place. The bitter is smooth and perfect for a session and the Alpine lager is crisp and to my mind as good or better than most premium pub brands. The distinct advantage being that they are cheap.


Citizen Smith

Citizen Smith could easily have been dismissed in our search for a pub, slating itself as a "Drinkery". The day to this point had been spent with Lou, her mum and sister; while watching another participate in the Head of The River. It was early evening and we literally needed a stop gap before the weary rower arrived after team drinks. Located opposite Putney Rail Station its main appeal was that it wasn't the nearby Wetherspoons and it had plenty of free tables. Hardly a ringing endorsement but we just needed a pub. Looking like a venue for a girls night out of overpriced cocktails and Tom Cruise wanabee barmen, as opposed to a meeting place for the Tooting Popular Front, I wasn't hopeful, but it was preferable to squeezing into the Rugby fans at the Wetherspoons.

Greeted by an Aussie waitress (well this is Putney) we were told that a menu was on the table and she would come and take our order. My impulse was just to ask for something generic rather than waiting for her to make her rounds again. Lucky I didn't. Far from having just a standard British and European  choices there was a far better mix than expected. Next to the four pages of cocktails there was an ample choice of draught Meantime (Kolsch, Pale Ale, Smoked Back, Stout) and Cornish Coaster for the UK, bottled Little Creatures and Coopers for Down Under and from our friends across the pond a mix of draught and bottled Sierra Nevada (Pale Ale and Porter), Brooklyn Brewery (Lager and Brown Ale), Goose Island and Liberty as well as a number of German offerings such as Schneider Weisse. Its fair to say that my interested had now piqued.

My mission for the day had been to create a good impression which I think I had to this point. This could have been a tipping point however as I pored over the choices. It was a case of do I go for a Sierra Nevada which at £4 a pint seemed reasonable to the £5+ i've paid in East London or bring back memories of Bedford Avenue with a Brooklyn Lager. After much deliberation its was the Meantime Smoked Back which clinched it. Having had a particularly lethal traditional German smoked beer weeks earlier I was interested to taste the Meantime take. Lou's mum (also Australian) attracted the waitresses attention and enquired as to which beers were chilled. With a quizzical look the waitress ventured that all the beers were served cold and they didn't actually warm any of them up. Not wanting to explain the difference to the waitress between chilled and what some people refer to as warm or room temperature I suggested a Sierra Nevada.

The Meantime Smoked Back arrived and I tasted cautiously. While still retaining the malty, smokey taste of the Rauchbier it was a lot more subtle, suiting a wider audience. While caught in my one man tasting session I was oblivious to Lou being short changed by a tenner. The waitress was apologetic and slightly embarrassed and all the more so when she did exactly the same thing to the next table. Perhaps its time for the Drinkery to invest in some product training and calculators. Leaving after the one beer, it won't be somewhere I would return to out of choice but if faced with it as a best alternative I wouldn't say no to a Sierra Nevada.