Arbutus: Best of British (October 2013)

On a wet and rainy night in October, there were few more comforting places to be than Arbutus. I had eaten several lunches here over the years, but this was the first time I had enjoyed dinner at the restaurant and it seemed fitting that my guest for the evening was an Italian, keen to assess the London dining scene and gain an insight into the best of British cooking/ produce. Nearly every table was occupied, creating a lively yet still intimate atmosphere given the size of the location. Given the weather outside, it almost felt cosy. Nothing is too formal here, yet the relaxed and engaging nature of the staff really do help to make the atmosphere. While sipping our ever-so English drinks (a craft beer from Camden for my guest and an artisanal gin and tonic for me), we enjoyed perusing the menu, noting eel from Lincolnshire and crab from Dorset amidst the starters and lamb from Wales, halibut from Scotland among the mains. It would, however, be unfair to describe the menu as exclusively British, and there are clear nods to French and Spanish influences too. All of the dishes we sampled were a success, augmented by a wonderful bottle of hearty red from Priorat. I began with the smoked eel, which arrived beautifully presented. The accompanying turnips provided a perfect foil and great balance was achieved by the additional presence of crisp boneless chicken wings and sweetcorn puree. I would happily have had a second portion. Being an unrepentant gastrophile, I felt obliged to go for the ‘pieds et pacquets’ as my main, a dish I had previously enjoyed at Arbutus, and one of their signature dishes. For the uninitiated, it comprises two parts, first lamb’s tripe and shoulder served in a rich tomato sauce with peppers and chick peas, followed by trotters from the said beast, served on toast with a crisp chicory salad on the side. Undoubtedly not a dish one can get anywhere, and well worth visiting the restaurant just for this. My comrade was similarly pleased with his somewhat more prosaic breast of Welsh lamb. Pricing is fair by London standards and more bargain-conscious visitors have the option of sampling the Arbutus pre-theatre set menu of two courses for just £19. Arbutus remains a wonderful advertisement for all this good about London dining and British food.