Pub food fit for a queen?
Update 16/8/2019 – this gastropub has now closed
Going to a restaurant recommended by another blogger is fraught with difficulty. If I agree that it’s great, then either the other blogger radiates unbearable smugness or a collective warm fuzziness, usually only seen during communal sporting events or when swooning over cute kitten videos, briefly ensues. If I think it’s rubbish and that the other blogger is madder than a bat in an aquarium and there will be a lot of awkward silences and angry stares at the next restaurant blogger cabal where we fix restaurant reviews for the month ahead (note to the humourless aspergic pedants among you – you know who you are – no such cabal actually exists. Yet.).
This swirling maelstrom of scenarios briefly occupied my mind as I ate at Great Queen Street, a Covent Garden gastropub recommended by Campari and Soda (now sort-of retired). It’s a handsome enough place , although the downstairs bar is better looking with its plump seats and moodier lighting.
Naturally, as a gastropub, most of Great Queen Street’s interesting drinks are alcoholic. One of their few non-alcoholic drinks that I have enjoyed on multiple occasions is the Virgin Bloody Mary which has plenty of kick from the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces.
First things first
On my first visit to Great Queen Street back in the Spring I started off with a salad of whelks, fennel, olives and pickled oranges which sounds like a barely thought out grab bag, but it worked surprisingly well. The saltiness of the firm whelks was complimented nicely by the mild sweetness of the olives, while the sharp fennel and the zesty sharpness of the oranges provided extra layers of flavour. There was a little too much fennel though and the dish would benefitted from a little more olives and/or whelks for balance.
Bacon is usually a sure sign of cheating on the part of the kitchen. Got a bland dish? Throw some fatty strips of pork in! Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. The firm, dense and evenly cooked rabbit had a grassy, slightly nutty flavour to it that was pepped up by the addition of a mustard-based sauce. Vegetables were provided in the form of small, moist turnip chunks. There was no need for bacon and there was thankfully very little of it.
Zabaglione is essentially a light Italian custard made with a sweet wine such as marsala and Great Queen Street’s version is the first I’ve had. It’s gently sweet, mildly creamy and ever so slightly boozy. It went well with the soft, mildly sweet strawberries and chewy bits of meringue. As someone who likes more intensely flavoured desserts, this one seems very understated with more of an emphasis on differences in texture than in punchy flavours. Not bad though.
Going back for seconds
I revisited Great Queen Street in the summer and started off with a suitably light appetiser of smoked mackerel served with horseradish and pickled cucumber. I was expecting some clever combination or concoction involving all three ingredients, but they arrived slapped on a plate separately from each other. I was non-plussed by the cucumber, but the eye-watering horseradish was the real deal. Its potent strength overpowered the bony and lightly smoked mackerel though. An underwhelming starter.
In my first meal at Great Queen Street, I mentioned with admiration how the kitchen had avoided the temptation of cheating with bacon in its rabbit dish. Sadly, they couldn’t resist this time around. Here fatty, tender strands of pork belly, hardly in need of extra piggy embellishment, had the addition of fatty, salty chorizo. This was very pleasing in its own right, but it would’ve been better if the pork had been left to stand alone with its serving of cockles. Their gentle squidgy saltiness was a far more interesting accompaniment to the pork belly, while a gently herby sauce helped bind everything together.
Great Queen Street is clearly a fan of Italian desserts. Instead of a zabaglione, I had a semifreddo this time around. This partially frozen dessert is soft, refreshing and not at all cloying. Although advertised as both hazelnut and chocolate flavoured, it tasted more of hazelnuts – no doubt helped by the actual bits of ground hazelnut dotted throughout. The semifreddo had been paired with very mild coffee cream – I’d have preferred something a little bolder.
Three is the magic number
I skipped autumn and went back to Great Queen Street in the winter and my meal this around, unsurprisingly, was very hearty indeed. The chorizo turned up again in the cuttlefish salad, but its presence this time around didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Its fatty saltiness felt like a natural pairing with the exceptionally tender, lightly salty slices of cuttlefish. I wasn’t enamoured with the chewy croutons though and the gem lettuce seemed to be there only to trick me into not thinking about the damage I was doing to my blood pressure. A good start.
In contrast to the very meaty main courses of my first two meals, which are in line with what I would expect from a gastropub, my main course this time was a chickpea pancake – an unexpectedly more hippy-ish choice. The huge pancake looks heavy and stodgy, but it was actually soft and fluffy yet still filling. It had the distinct taste of chickpeas, which doesn’t seem to mesh at first with the light, fluffy texture if you’re more used to the relative heaviness of falafel.
The accompaniment of roast pumpkins and peppers are sweet and tender, but the yoghurt topping is bland at best. The roasted vegetables and the pancake don’t really mesh together; they feel more like different ingredients plopped next to each other on a plate rather than constituents of the same dish. Scattered bits of parsley went a surprisingly long way in providing a unifying element to the dish, but there was ultimately not enough of it.
I ended with a dessert of pistachio cake and boozy prunes. The cake was moist, but muted in flavour. The prunes weren’t boozy in the slightest which, as a non-drinker, is saying something. They tasted exactly as you’d expect, but they didn’t compliment the cake especially well. Underwhelming.
The food at Great Queen Street can be great, especially if slow cooked meats are involved, but it can also be merely average which happened with surprising regularity during my three visits. Given this uneven execution, this gastropub is somewhere I’d use as a handy standby when I’m in the area and in need of a hearty feed but can’t get a table elsewhere. It’s not great, but it’s good enough and hopefully that will be enough to stop Campari and Soda from giving me dirty looks at the next cabal meeting.
Name: Great Queen Street
Address: 32 Great Queen Street WC2B 5AA
Phone: 0207 729 2966
Opening Hours: Monday 18.00-23.00, Tuesday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person inc soft drinks and service: £30 approx.