Steakhouse and pub all-in-one
The original Hill and Szrok is a butchers in Broadway Market that branched out into catering. Re-purposing its central marble slab into a communal table, the butcher turned into a self-described ‘cookshop’ at night. ‘Cookshops’ are apparently the Regency-era precursors to restaurants in modern Britain and it’s hard to forget this deliberate anachronism when eating at Hill and Szrok’s new gastropub near Old Street station.
With a proper pub in the front and a dining room in the back, complete with a recreation of the original marble slab in the middle of the latter, the gastropub part of Hill and Szrok looks like a proper restaurant. But it takes more than printed menus and a few tables for two to make a restaurant. Service is a critical part of the experience and it’s here that Hill and Szrok’s relative inexperience at hospitality is most evident. Stoney-faced staff, lengthy delays in getting menus, ordering and settling the bill as well as forgotten drinks and side dishes were recurring problems across all of my many visits. These service problems are of course fixable – indeed, progress, albeit slow, was made in both efficiency and friendliness across my multiple visits.
There’s little complaint to be had when it comes to the food though. Alleged on-site butchering keeps typical bills at around the £30 mark without booze (unless you order steak), while the cooking was simple but accomplished.
Lamb at Hill and Szrok
While the butterflied lamb didn’t have the extraordinary texture and depth of flavour as the lamb sometimes available at The Newman Arms, the baby sheep here was still cooked with adept proficiency. A charred and crisp exterior with an evenly cooked, lightly salted and pink interior. While the typical earthy funk was somewhat muted, the punchy mint and dill sauce made up for it to an extent.
Lightly offaly chicken hearts had a firm texture akin to pork kidneys and were served on crunchy toast. The two were best eaten separately though – the crunch of toast often obscured the taste and texture of the hearts. Plus, eating the hearts first gives the toast time to absorb the salty meat juices. The promised ‘devilled’ sauce was tame to the point of non-existence, but this was still an enjoyable dish.
Crunchy cabbage was livened up by the powerful saltiness of an anchovy reduction and then was pepped up even further by a modest chilli spice. Spot-on anchovies are a sure-fire way to warm my cold, cold heart.
Meaty and lightly sweet chipolatas were served with a lightly spiced ketchup on the side. Cumberland sausages are my British banger of choice, but that would be greedy and these little porkers were a decent enough side in their own right.
The deep-fried rice pudding balls were effectively a sweet version of Italian arancini, showing that Hill and Szrok’s kitchen isn’t adverse to some measured experimentation here and there. The crisp, oil-free exterior gave way to reveal a piping hot and somewhat fluffy rice layer. At the very centre of it all was a small dollop of jam that was complimented by the chunky and treacly prune puree. Apart from the need for a little more resting time, this was a decent enough dessert even if it wasn’t dramatically better than a more conventional rice pudding.
Pork at Hill and Szrok
It’s hard to eat pork chops at Hill and Szrok without thinking of the lovely, excellent value pile of pork chops available at Blacklock. While Hill and Szrok can’t match its Soho competition for low cost, it’s on a par at execution – charred and lightly crunchy fat rimming an evenly cooked and lightly moist hunk of white meat. Plus, you can order it with a fried egg on top so you can get the richness of a runny yolk. Just ignore the carraway relish – it has a habit of overwhelming everything else.
Big scoops of pork liver pate resembled ice cream dollops, but were definitely savoury. Although creamy, they were only modestly earthy with a slight offaly edge. The real winner here was the tart and fruity pickled cabbage served on the side.
Bitter leaves accompanied by refreshing blood orange slices, which struck a good balance between tartness and sweetness, would be a fine palate cleansing accompaniment to any of the meat dishes on offer here.
Poultry at Hill & Szrok
Duck breast is an occasional special at Hill and Szrok. This rendition was cooked rare and thus was lightly chewy, but there wasn’t enough fat. This was disappointing as fat is the main reservoir of flavour when it comes to duck, especially if the rest of it is cooked rare which tends to de-emphasise the bird’s usual earthy funk. The tart and lightly fruity rhubarb sauce might sound like an odd accompaniment for duck, but it’s not too far removed from duck a l’orange. It cut through the relative richness of the duck breast and was addictively slurpable in its own right too.
Although castel franco is apparently closed related to raddichio, these big bitter leaves looked more cabbage-esque. It turned up in a variant of the side salad from my first visit. Its sharpness combined with the tart juices of the blood orange slices was pleasing both in its own right and as an accompaniment to meat.
I expected little from the confit leeks, so I was pleasantly surprised by their slippery tautness and light butteriness which melded well with the the distinctive astringent tang of the Stilton crumbs. Wafer thin toasted crispbreads added a bit of roughage without getting in the way.
The topping of the vanilla cheesecake was more like yoghurt than vanilla – creamy and slightly sour. It was none the worse for it though and perfectly enjoyable.
The cheap cuts at Hill & Szrok
Hill and Szrok’s kitchen can do fine things with cheaper cuts of meat that others would overlook. Lightly chewy bits of pork liver resplendent with an offally funk were topped with a moreish garnish that made them even better, while dollops of refreshing creme fraiche helped clear the palate.
The beef stew may look like a molten lump of slag, but the tender chunks of beef and thin moreish sauce were beautifully simple and satisfying. I’m rarely one to ask for less meat, but I’d happily trade a little beef for more of the fluffy yet hearty suet dumplings. One dumpling is just not enough.
Flaky florets of cauliflower had just the right texture – neither too hard and crunchy, nor too soft and mushy. Sadly, the anchovy-based dressing wasn’t as potently umami or as piquantly spiced as before which was a real disappointment.
The deep-fried rice pudding balls were structurally very similar to the way they were before, but with some small yet key differences. At the centre of each fluffy rice ball was a small piece of tender rhubarb, but it was hard to appreciate given the crunchy shell and steaming hot rice pudding layer. The old school pairing of lightly sweet jam and eggy, creamy custard on the side was far more successful.
Fish at Hill and Szrok
There’s little for vegetarians at Hill and Szrok, but pescatarians can eat very well as long as they’re not too fussy. There’s usually at least one fish dish on the ever-changing menu, with a whole grilled bream impressing me one weekday evening. Charred, smoky skin with a fruity tone concealed light, flaky yet satisfyingly meaty flesh that had been cooked just so. The technical excellence of the kitchen here is often nothing short of outstanding.
Coarse and chunky pork rillettes were more like pulled pork than the smoother rillettes that I’m used to, with thick, firm strands of pig easily discernible. Firm, creamy and meaty, they were far more enjoyable than the mediocre rillettes and pulled porks served elsewhere, especially when followed with the briney, dill and paprika-flecked cucumber slices.
Coarse and lightly spicy minced beef in a slightly chewy casing made for a fine merguez. Although hardly spicy enough to register even a tickle, minty palate-cleansing creme fraiche was still very welcome.
Steak at Hill and Szrok
The exact cuts of steak available at Hill and Szrok vary day-to-day, but you should order the cote de boeuf if it’s ever available. Cooked rare – as the waiting staff never ask for your preference – the charred and lightly salted crust provided cover for pink, tender flesh with a gentle tang that tingled my taste buds with a moist, meaty kiss. Since this was a 1kg sharing steak, the nitpicking Euro Hedgie reckoned the steak should’ve been cross-cut rather than strip-cut to ensure that everyone gets an even distribution of beef instead of someone being lumped with all the fat. He’s over thinking it though – grown adults should be more than capable of equitably sharing the meaty goods – and he had little idea of how to accomplish this without cutting along the grain except for semi-facetiously suggesting the use of a laser.
We also shared the shepherd’s pie which turned out to be surprisingly big, even in in the smallest available portion size. A single layer of fluffy mash topped a generous helping of moist and tender lamb shank chunks as well as a scattering of taut cabbage pieces. Due to their sheer size, the moist, meaty trunks weren’t evenly distributed as a result which would be problematic in an even bigger portion shared amongst more people. The Euro Hedgie reckoned the lamb broth could’ve been reduced further to emphasise its meatiness even more, rather than leaning too heavily on herbs for flavour. Even so, this was still one of the best shepherd’s pies I’ve come across and easily good enough to change my previously dismissive view of this classic dish.
The easily dismembered cauliflower came dressed in a small spurting of Worcestershire sauce, but the stand out element here was the taut jerky-like strips of candied bacon.
The kitchen clearly knew that it had consistency problems with the anchovy dressing for vegetables, as the bitter castel franco leaves here were accompanied by sharp and lightly brined cucumber slices. This was just as well as a secondary garnish of pickled fennel was very tame indeed.
Hill and Szrok’s cooking isn’t quite special enough to make it worth trekking across town for, but it’s still so accomplished, elegantly straightforward and aggressively priced that you’d be mad not to eat at this pub if you find yourself in this part of town. The real problem is the wobbly front of house which lets the entire side down. The service may well evolve past these problems, but I try to take restaurants as they are rather than how I wish they would be. So, for now, the rough-edged service means that, despite the solid Four Star cooking, the Hill and Szrok pub is a distinctly Three-Star experience.
What to order: Steak; Fish; Cheap cuts; Pies; Cheesecake
What to skip: Possibly the deep-fried rice pudding
Name: Hill and Szrok Pub
Address:8 East Road, London N1 6AD
Phone: 0207 324 7799
Web: http://www.hillandszrok.co.uk/ (basic pub details oddly only available in a pop-up when you first visit the website, at the time of writing at least)
Opening Hours: Lunch, Tuesday – Friday noon-15.00. Dinner, Monday-Saturday 18.30-22.30. Closed Sunday.
Reservations: most tables kept open for walk-ins, so if you really, really need a reservation then book well ahead
Average cost for one person including soft drinks but excluding tip: £30 approx. (£45-50 approx., at least, if you order most cuts of steak)
“An elegantly straightforward meat pub let down by inconsistent service.”
The Picky Glutton
If you find yourself near Old Street, you’d be mad not to eat here.