Grab the bull by the horns

There are so many places in my old neighbourhood, around Kentish town, Dartmouth Park and Highgate which are happily ensconced in my memory as truly special places.  Many moons ago, I lived in Kentish town, I worked there, I drank there, I partied there and I very rarely left the borough of Camden.  And so, lots of the gems of the area became my favourite haunts.  I remember countless evenings spent at the Flask in Highgate village; in summer enjoying the sunshine on the large terrace and in winter, snuggled into a dimly lit corner of the cellar-like depths of the building.  I have had some great times at these places…

Yesterday I decided to do a mini pub crawl of north London.  On the list were the Flask in Highgate, the Bull and Last on the periphery of Hampstead heath and the Pineapple, which was the pub I worked in for two years.  Starting at the top and working my way down, I headed for the Flask first, which actually turned out to be a rather epic mission, as I had only ever walked there before and was trying to find it from the tube station, from a direction I had never approached it from before. After the nice man in an antiques shop told me which direction to head in, I finally found it, tucked around a corner and still buzzing with life.

And incidentally, saw two famous types, so it must still be de rigueur to drink there.  As I walked through the large courtyard, most tables were full of people relaxing and enjoying their sunday afternoon. At first glance, I was heartened to see that not much had changed.  Unfortunately, on closer inspection, it had changed and not in a good way. The sultry cellar like room which used to have dark walls and lots of opportunities for privacy (I kid you not, when I was there about 8 years ago, there was a couple nearly doing it in the corner but luckily it was too dark to see) was now sporting white painted walls and a strange cold light, which in my opinion, had ruined the atmosphere somewhat, there were little modifications all about the place.  Maybe I just like to believe that nothing has changed in the 6 years I have been away but of course it has, change is all around us.  It is the one thing you can rely on in life, everything changes…

The Bull and Last is a pub which I used to frequent back in the day but only ever for drinking, the food wasn’t up to much back then and so it was simply a drinking hole.  However, word on the street was that the Bull and Last was now a food destination, well, if Rene Redzepi’s been there, it must be good.  It was pub quiz night and therefore very busy with large, boisterous groups, exactly how I would be if I was taking part in the quiz.  Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, the quiz master (I’m sure he’s a lovely guy) had possibly the most annoying voice I have ever heard, bar none.  Moving swiftly on to the more positive elements of the evening.  The food was impressive.  The menu was actually rather expensive, maybe a little too expensive, it is still a pub after all.  Anyway, I said I was going to be positive… It was clearly a British menu featuring lots of locally, ethically sourced produce.  If there is a beef tartare on the menu, the rest of the menu may as well not exist for me , so deep is my love for tartare.  So, that was my decision made for me, beef tartare to start, followed by roast venison with celeriac and salsify for main.

My tartare was delicious, very well seasoned and had a bit of a kick to it too.  I also liked the fact that despite already being near perfect, they served extra cornichons and capers, for if you wanted to give those great flavours even more of a lift.  The beef was clearly good quality and coupled with the hand cut fries I had on the side, it was a damn fine starter.  My expectations were high for the main course and I was not disappointed.  The venison was delightfully pink and tender and the accompaniments were tasty, my only slight quibble was that it was maybe a little too rich, it needed better balance, either  lighten the dish or add a bit of a sour note as the combined muskiness of the celeriac and salsify made it a very earthy plate of food.  There were a few blackberries scattered on the plate which if they had been better utilised or more abundant would have provided that much needed sharp character which the dish lacked.  However, all in all, a fine plate of food, all happily washed down with a carafe of Primitivo.

I rounded out my tour with a drink at the Pineapple.  I spent two years working there and have so many fond memories of the place.  I did a lot of partying there as well as working there and I think I was there for a period where it was very much the place to go.  There were many familiar faces around the bar, of people who I am sure have long forgotten me but they were there nonetheless, reminding me that there has been a lot of change in the last 6 years but that there is also a lot that has stayed the same.  And as much as change is good, familiarity can be just as good, especially when you want a pint somewhere cosy…


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