If the word ‘gastropub’ has become cliche, then so too has the critic’s perfunctory dissection of its usage. It seems you can’t read a pub review these days without first wading through a rambling discussion about this demi-neologism. So I shan’t mention it, but shall instead simply tell you that the Bull and Last in Kentish Town is a pub that serves very, very good food.
There’s a sweet wee selection of bar snacks, so should you wish to soak away an afternoon of Black Sheep and backgammon, then you have delights like saucisson sec and cornichons, trotter wontons, and rock oysters to nibble at, all around £2-5 mark. We shared some silvery slivers of anchovy and some crispy pigs ears. The ears were crispy, which was a good start, but piggy too – so often deep fried food tastes of the fryer and not the fryee, but in this case the swine won through. Bits of his head sat in the bottom of the bowl, goopy goodies to scoop up with the shards of tart apple and papery slices of shallot.
Mum and Dad shared the fish board (£12.50) to start – gravalax so pink and vivid that Pat Butcher might wear it as a necklace, potted shrimps, smoked mackerel, haddock croquette, crispy squid and aioli; truly all faultless, though the bread stood out – as sweet and dark as Soreen and nearly as delicious. A crab soup (£7.50) was served wittily with gruyere croquettes and little toasts with extra crab meat on top.
The mains are a well-judged balance of pub staple – steak, fish and chips, the yoozj – and more, well, restauranty dishes. Cote de boeuf between two seemed a steal at £49.50, and considering the quality of the rest of the meat would certainly be worth going back for. Dad opted for Char-grilled Welsh lamb (£18), which came with the most achingly soft wedge of confit lamb breast and some gently spiced chickpeas, reminding this writer of a recipe in a book which is due out in the Spring. Mum had a sirloin steak (£18.95), which was cooked as ordered and was a good piece of meat. I’m not sure that much more can be said about a steak. Mary’s steak tartare (£16) was fine. No, it was good – well-Tabascoed and hand cut, but not, perhaps, the best you’ll find in London.
Hare hotpot with red cabbage (£14) was blinding – as rich as Croesus and comfortingly autumnal. If you were nitpicking you might say the potatoes could have been browned a little more, but I wasn’t nitpicking, I was eating, and it tasted of win. Thrice-cooked chips were as fat as a wrestler’s thumb, and so crisp without, so soft within, that it was a struggle to work out why some people have such a problem with chunky chips.
By this point all we could manage was a scoop (£2 a scoop) or two of something cold. Almond ice cream was Proustian, reminding me of my first trip to a Dairy Queen in Iowa c.1991. This was very much a good thing. And the cucumber sorbet? A kick in the balls for any naysayers who say cucumbers taste of nay – because it was so cucumbery and fruity and sweet that you could compare it to something else extremely cucumbery and fruity and sweet. A sweet, fruity cucumber, perhaps.
It’s difficult to find anything to criticise here – the service was charming, the food handsome and loved and well-sourced, and the fish and chips served with a gherkin. If this is what a gastropub is then long may they live.
The Bull and Last
168 Highgate Road
London NW5 1QS
020 7267 3641