This is a sorry tale that happily ends rather well. It starts on Saturday evening, when we try to eat at The House in Islington, a gastropub which won Time Out Gastropub of the year last year and which I fancy because I pass it quite often and it looks rather groovy–it is actually in a house–and because I haven’t really done any gastropubs until now. I had phoned a few days beforehand to book, and was told there were no tables available, but the lady who took the call also said that if it was a fine evening tables would be put out in the garden and if we came at 7-ish there’d be a good chance of getting one. Well, Saturday is a beautiful day and the evening is fine, so we opt to chance it and turn up at 7-ish only to find there is no chance whatsoever. The place is heaving. Not The House’s fault, as such, because nearby Arsenal have just done something very good and the place is bursting with fans. I do not quite know what Arsenal have done and will probably never know, as I am no longer allowed to ask my partner or son any questions about sport. My mind, they say, is the opposite of a sponge when it comes to sport–all information ricochets off–and they are fed up with explaining the same thing 429 times (782, when it comes to cricket. And if I ever ask about the offside rule again they are going to put me out the cat-flap and then seal it with masking tape so I can never get back in again. They hope I consider myself warned come Euro 2004).
So The House is obviously a no-no, although we do give it a try, and find the lady who may or may not be the lady I spoke to on the phone. ‘Any chance of a table?’ my partner asks. ‘No,’ says the lady. ‘In the bar?’ he asks. ‘You could try,’ she replies in a voice that says ‘But I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.’ ‘What a snotty no-can-do,’ my partner says, as we schlep back to the car. I say it’s not her fault that Arsenal have done this good thing I can’t ask about. He says she could have been more helpful. He adds he didn’t like The House anyway. ‘Too chi-chi. Not pubby enough.’ We think we will head towards Clerkenwell, which is basically Gastropub Land and where the whole movement began with The Eagle on Farringdon Road, the first London pub to properly dispense with ping-ping cuisine–that is, the microwave–and offer high-quality food instead of jacket potatoes with cheese, jacket potatoes with beans or, for those in a what-the-hell frame of mind, jacket potatoes with beans and cheese. I have nothing against jacket potatoes but don’t feel they’re an evening out. As far as I can recall I have never said, and am unlikely ever to say, ‘Darling, let’s go out tonight for a microwaved jacket potato. And sod the expense!’
However, we’re thwarted in our new plan because we cannot get down Upper Street. Cars tooting, cops all over the shop, big-bellied fans of the kind not seen in the House (they were more Nick Hornby types) cheering and carousing. We move inch by inch. My partner is now in one of his London rages. I can tell he is now in one of his London rages because when he is in a London rage, whatever happens at a zebra crossing will only enrage him further. If the pedestrian mouths, ‘Thank you’, he says, ‘Don’t thank me. I’m only stopping because it’s the law.’ If the pedestrian fails to thank him he sticks his head out the window and shouts, ‘Thank you to you, too.’ And if they are elderly or disabled or very fat he does all of the above plus revs the engine, just to get them moving a bit quicker. I’m beginning to wish, frankly, I’d stayed home to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, if only to laugh at the Balkan entries, not because they are any worse than any of the others but because I’m fascinated by the way the women all look as if they’ve been dressed by their local sex shop. Oops, I think we just clipped someone … better get outta here.
So we give up on Clerkenwell, cut through the back of Islington and decide to head north. Hampstead, maybe. Or Highgate. So it’s back up the Holloway Road, though Tufnell Park–this is interesting, isn’t it?–and up Dartmouth Park Hill, where we spot the Lord Palmerston (it’s on the corner of Dartmouth Park and Chetwynd Road, for those who are so riveted they’re now following this in their A-Z), and we’ve kind of heard of the Lord Palmerston, so we think we will stop here. This proves a good decision, because we like the Lord Palmerston the moment we walk in. The thing about most gastropubs is that they’ve gastro-ed away the pub. Although usually housed in overhauled old boozers, they no longer feel like the old boozers they once were. The Lord Palmerston does, though. It has a yes-smoking policy throughout and a decor which, apart from a few original Victorian touches, is actually refreshingly bare–plain wooden tables, plain wooden floors, plain dark-wood bar instead of a scary steel or granite thing. It has three kinds of Young’s beer on tap, a good wine list, is bustling rather than too busy and still has the feel and ambience of a local.
We find a table, and read the blackboard menu. The menu is a bit fancy-pants but not too fancy-pants: roast ratatouille and Brie wrap with baby spinach and tomato (8.75 [pounds sterling]); seafood ragout with organic basmati rice and crab bisque (12.50 [pounds sterling]); seared tuna with salad Nicoise (12.50 [pounds sterling]). In the end, though, I go for crispy fillet of red snapper with sauteed pak choi, shitake mushrooms, baby sweetcorn and a sweet chilli sauce. It arrives speedily, the portion is generous, and the fish is delicious: crispy on the outside; succulent, opalescent and juicy on the inside. The pak choi is crunchy and the shitake mushrooms are plump. My only complaint is that the sweet chilli sauce could have been a little less sweet and a little more chillified, that it lacked kick, but I think we can let that go. My partner and son both have the chargrilled chicken breast, chorizo and avocado Caesar salad. ‘Good. Very good,’ says my partner, who may be emerging from his London rage. ‘Lots of avocado. Very spicy chorizo. They haven’t been mean with the chicken which has a good chargrilled flavour.’ We share three of the puddings: a banoffee pie, a tarte tatin and a raspberry creme brulee. All are 3.50 [pounds sterling] and heavenly. It’s turned out to be a pleasurable evening, plus we not only get home without killing any fat pedestrians but we also make it in time to see a lady from Ukraine dressed like a low-class hooker win Eurovision. Perfect. (Next week, I’ll be travelling from Archway to Camden, if you want to get your A-Zs ready.)
The Lord Palmerston, 33 Dartmouth Park Hill, London NW5; 020 7485 1578.