Aye for pie with an eye for pie
One should never, ever underestimate the importance of how food looks. Attractive-looking food not only influences how we perceive its taste, but can get otherwise disinterested punters in through the door in the first place. This placebo-like effect can be seen in the social media hubbub surrounding Holborn Dining Room. This previously unremarked and unheralded restaurant has been given a new lease of life via Instagram and Twitter. Photos of chef Calum Franklin’s intricately extravagant pies and other pastry dishes have captured the imagination of people who follow London’s restaurant scene.
Update 8/04/2019 – details of Holborn Dining Room’s now fully fleshed out pie menu can be found further down this page
The uncritical devotion that Instagram has engendered around Holborn Dining Room obscures a few facts for the unobservant. For a start, this cavernous restaurant has an odd policy where large groups (defined as seven diners or more) will only be seated for dinner before 18.35 or after 21.00. When asked why, a written statement claimed this was to avoid ‘creating any delay at peak time on dinner services. Our kitchen capacity being limited by the size, can result in slowing pace of service, as it does take longer to dress a table of 12 than it would for a table of 4’.
That kinda makes sense, although I wonder if, by that rationale, they would avoid seating, for example, two separate groups of six at the same time. Suspect reasoning aside, the front of house service was scatty and inefficient on the weekday evening of our visit with the dining room approximately 3/4 full at its peak. It’s hard to say whether this was purely their own stumbling or also indicative of problems in the kitchen. Regardless, an unspoken group booking policy bluntly applied without flexibility or discretion is a poor substitute for a more thoroughly drilled front of house.
More importantly, the pies and other pastry dishes only make up a very small part of the menu – this hotel restaurant also has to cater to the lowest common denominator tastes of its guests. There’s not even a dedicated pie menu – a single solitary pie choice rotates onto the main menu every month. Even the sumptuous-looking beef wellington is only available on Wednesdays – and even then, you may have to pointedly and repeatedly ask the stuttering, error-prone staff if it’s available or not. Combined with the relatively high cost (£19 for a pie main course without sides), one has to wonder if it’s worth the bother or if it’s all just a social media mirage.
I decided to find out with the aid of The Lensman, Happy Buddha, Templeton Peck, Porn Master, Veal Smasher and Athlete’s Foot in a pie and pastry bender.
One permanent fixture of the menu is the rabbit and bacon en croute served at room temperature. The pastry was a thing of beauty – richly buttery and tightly packed, with not a single stray crumb going to waste. Quiveringly salty gelatine ringed a thick yet light and moist terrine of meat that tasted much like pork. Tart and lightly pickled slices of vegetables served on the side helped cut through all the richness.
Athlete’s Foot’s lobster thermidor tart wasn’t quite as superlative, but was nonetheless satisfying. The soft and fluffy filling took centre stage with its exceedingly buttery creaminess. Although the chunks of lobster studded throughout were a little too soft, the filling nonetheless had a strong bisque-like undertone that proved neatly complimentary to the bold butteriness.
The Scotch egg looked the part, but struggled to follow through on its alluring appearance. While far from bad, both Veal Smasher and The Lensman were left unconvinced by its apologetic crunch, muted meatiness and lack of both herby kick and runny yolk.
The pie of the month during our visit was filled with curried mutton. The tender meat inside was fine, but it was merely the supporting act for the pastry. It was truly impressive in its boldness and balance – rich, buttery and neither too thick nor too thin, neither too hard nor too soft. It would be a mistake to skimp on the curry sauce served on the side. It had the gentle warmth of a chip shop curry sauce, but with a touch more spice and a fruity mango sharpness that seemed out of place at first but quickly grew into a rhythm contrasting with the tender sinews of the mutton.
Templeton Peck thought that the pastry in the beef wellington was too buttery – especially after all the richness that had preceded it. I honestly couldn’t disagree more – life threatening quantities of weaponised butter help make pastry the beautiful thing that it is. If nothing else, the decadently luxuriant lactic lusciousness of the flaky pastry contrasted perfectly with the earthiness of the minced mushrooms directly adjacent to it. The meaty tang of the tender, medium rare fillet of beef at the centre of it all was beautiful in its quivering reddish pink glory. Superb.
The spinach and cabbage were fine, but ultimately forgettable sides. This was at least better than the roasted potatoes. Although golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the excessively chewy skin-like exteriors left a lot to be desired.
The best of our sides had to be the champ. This buttery mash flecked with sharp spring onions was one of the best versions of champ I’ve had so far.
After that much pastry and meat, Veal Smasher had to have a quiet moment by himself before he could dive into dessert. The pastry wasn’t the star of his lemon tart – that honour went to the filling. Its lightness and gentle zingy sharpness was reminiscent of a good lemon curd and was far superior to the lacklustre lemon tart fillings found elsewhere.
Happy Buddha’s rhubarb crumble wasn’t as well-crafted. He liked the fine-grained crumble topping, whereas I did not. The filling was very sharp – almost one-dimensionally so – and thus failed to capture the the subtle sweetness or yielding texture that, along with that characteristic sharpness, help make rhubarb one of the most distinctive if least appreciated crumble, tart and pie fillings.
If it isn’t obvious from the rest of Holborn Dining Room’s menu, don’t order the apple pie if you’re expecting the archetypal all-American version of this dessert classic. The version here was topped with a sugared, thin, lightly crunchy pastry. Underneath was a spiced apple and raisin combo that, while far from bad, was a bit too heavy and repetitive given the large portion size and oddly Christmassy too. The spiced warmth of both the fruit filling and the smooth cinnamon ice cream added much needed variety, while the latter also provided moist, supple refreshment.
2019 update: the new pie menu at Holborn Dining Room
Much has changed at the Holborn Dining Room with a whole section on the menu devoted to a variety of pies, a hatch selling takeaway pies on weekday lunchtimes and the apparent abolition of the ridiculous rule on bookings involving large-ish parties. The service, while somewhat improved, can still – on occasion – lack the polished grace and professionalism that I’d expect from a restaurant at this price. Still, I’m not going to complain too much given the other improvements at this pie hole.
The steak and kidney pudding may not be a pie, strictly speaking, but its presence is still notable in a town where suet-based puddings are an increasingly uncommon sight. That’s a real shame as this pudding’s fluffy, airy light charms should be the subject of just as much adoration as any baked combination of lard, flour and butter. The filling wasn’t quite as winsome, but not for the reason you might think. The sinewy and tender steak was a fine cut of beef, but there was too much of it and not enough of the springy and earthy kidney. Tarmac Guts violently disagrees with my calculation of this ratio, but my offal-loving tendencies are incurable. Still, few things are more pleasurable than dredging lovingly prepared steak and pudding through a rich, sticky gravy.
The patterned potato comte pie was – like many Insta-famous dishes – not quite as delightful to eat as it was to gaze at and photograph. The thin yet dense sheathes of buttery pastry encased a creamy, gooey cheese and neatly caramelised onions that packed a gentle sweetness. The potatoes were just starchy bulk though and the parsley liqour was surprisingly shrug-inducing. Holborn Dining Room’s only vegetarian pie was very much a mixed bag.
The light, buttery, flaky pastry of the chicken pie wasn’t let down by the quality of the poultry. The gamey chook was unexpectedly characterful and bolstered further by the crisp, sweet peas on the side. The girolles were taut and slippery with a light bittersweetness, but the meagre amount used meant these qualities were easily lost amidst everything else. Still, this is a chicken pie to crow about.
Beef Wellington remains available as a special every Wednesday and is still absolutely a must-have. The soft, light and crisp pastry, the bitter spinach and the aura of moreish minced mushrooms all worked in harmony to bolster the rich, pulsating heart of this main – the beef. Thick yet tender with a moreish beefy tang, this exquisite hunk of cow was enjoyable as much for its sumptuously smooth mouthfeel as it was for its unmistakably animal-derived flavour. If you’ve ever doubted the virtues of Beef Wellington, then this is the version that will change your mind. It certainly changed mine.
The hot pork pie is not only one of the newest pies on the menu, but one of the most deceptively simple. Its unique charms lay not in the thin, flaky, feathery light layers of pastry – winsome as it was. It was the pork filling itself which hogged the limelight. This was no grey, off-white and past-its-prime swine flesh. This was a moist, quivering hulk of meaty yet perky pork the rosy colour of a slapped bottom. Its richness and almost gamey flavor was neatly offset by a bittersweet herb. Even Tarmac Guts, who initially bemoaned the absence of gelatin, was won over.
The curried mutton pie wasn’t as enjoyable as it had once been. Not because of any decline in quality of its initially dense then feathery light pastry. The tender, sinewy mutton was on form, as was the sauce which lay somewhere in between a chip shop curry sauce and a coronation chicken sauce in its cosseting sweetness. All of it just paled into insignificance next to the sticky richness of the steak and kidney pudding or the primal seductiveness of the pork pie.
Starters and side dishes at Holborn Dining Room
The tightly crumbed shell of the Scotch egg trod lightly, leaving the limelight to the first-rate, no-filler pork sausage meat. The egg yolk at the centre wasn’t as rich as I was expecting though. This moderate flaw had been fixed on a subsequent visit, completing a near pitch-perfect Scotch egg – a seemingly effortless morsel that left one panting for more.
The pate en croute was layer-upon-layer of considered culinary restraint. The light yet somehow simultaneously dense pastry was the perfect introduction to the rich mantle of aniseedish jelly. This, in turn, was the perfect accompaniment to the smooth, meaty pate and its light nutty accents.
The lobster thermidor tart wasn’t as meaty or as bisque-ish as it once had been, but more generically creamy in its fluffiness. The flaky, buttery pastry was still on point, but most of the joy here came from the breadcrumbed claw as it was the only part to effectively evoke the sea – even if only in part.
The hot buttered shrimp turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be a far better seafood starter. The combination of gently briney shrimp and lavish quantities of butter made for fine eating, whether on its own or spooned onto toast.
The octopus starter didn’t have the springy firmness which suits this cephalopod so well. It wasn’t a complete loss though – while a bit too soft, this texture was at least consistent throughout and went well enough with the fatty, lightly piquant discs of chorizo and the unctuous hollandaise sauce.
Despite a few duds, the charcuterie selection was largely a success. The air-dried beef unsurprisingly resembled bresaola and pastirma in its rich bovine tang, while delicately thin slices of cured lamb were distinctively different from either pork or beef in their fatty funkiness. Lusciously gossamer-thin slices of culatello had their fatty saltiness offset by a fruity sweetness, while the Cornish coppa combined a milky rim of fat with a nutty tinge. Only the surprising dull lamb merguez and the oddly oily and bitter rabbit salami let the side down.
As long as you’re not a salad dodger like Tarmac Guts, then it’s worth ordering the refreshing green salad or the crisp and fruity sweet apple-based coleslaw. They’re the perfect counterpoints to the richness of the various pies.
The truffle parmesan fries were less effective as an accompaniment to the various pies. The combination of umami parmesan and richly aromatic truffle oil would’ve been welcome in any other context. Alongside the already sumptuously hearty pies though, and they were just one indulgence too far. If you’re determined to avoid the salad and the coleslaw, then the sweet, tenderised carrots – laced with a hint of tarragon – straddled the line between dutiful pie chauffeur and characterful side dish, in and of itself, more effectively than the fries.
Takeaway pies from Holborn’s The Pie Room
The Pie Room is Holborn Dining Room’s takeaway hatch, located just a few doors down High Holborn from the main restaurant entrance. While most of The Pie Room’s menu is identical to the restaurant’s pie menu, it only charges around half as much. This is not only a good way to save some coin if the weather is clement or if you’re lucky enough to be a local, it gives you an uncommon insight into just how much value the restaurant itself places on its own décor, comfort, atmosphere and hospitality.
In any case, it’s a bargain if the pork pie is anything to go by. It’s identical to the version served in the restaurant, as far as I could tell, in all its porcine glory. The cold version was, unsurprisingly, a somewhat different beast. The somewhat denser yet still thin and light pastry wasn’t too far removed from the hot version. The biggest differences lay in the pork filling. While hearty and chunky, it wasn’t as fatty or gamey. A touch of bittersweetness came from pork jelly rather than herbs, while mustard seeds added a hint of spiced warmth. While hardly a dud and clearly superior to just about every other cold pork pie I’ve ever had, it’s clearly a substitute pie of convenience for when you can’t scarf the hot version.
There are some pies and baked goods which are only available from The Pie Room, such as the sausage roll. Although Tarmac Guts was sceptical at the pastry-to-meat ratio tilting too far in favour of the latter, it was nonetheless a divine work of meaty genius. The pastry was as evenly golden brown as it was thin and flaky. In a similar vein to the swine flesh used in the pork pie, the indecently moist and muscular sausage meat came dotted with bittersweet herbs to counterbalance its dense richness. If only all sausage rolls were as wondrous.
A fish pie special is only available on Fridays, but the mashed potato-topped pot pie I had will doubtless cause consternation amongst pie pastry purists. Regardless, the version I had was a satisfying pescatarian dish with a light yet creamy mixture of earthy salmon, haddock and hake topped with fluffy mash.
Desserts at Holborn Dining Room
Surprisingly, the desserts were far less accomplished than the pies. The unexpectedly subdued sticky toffee pudding wasn’t as rich, dark and sweet as I would’ve preferred. While the cream filling of the Paris Brest was reasonably nutty, the pastry itself left me cold and the promised salted caramel was neither salty enough nor caramelish enough.
The filling of the spiced custard tart was hardly spiced at all, but its resemblance to a traditional English-style egg custard tart filling was nonetheless winsome. This was especially true when it was taken with the crunch of the thin, light and tightly crumbed pastry which bore a passing resemblance to shortbread. The boozy prunes on the side were an unwanted distraction though, while the slushy, icy, boozy egg nog ice cream was more puzzling than anything else.
The indulgently top-heavy tarte tatin was, in my estimation, as lop-sided in the mouth as it was on the table. The overly tart fruit didn’t have a sweet enough glaze to offset it, leaving that task to the vanilla ice cream served on the side. While smooth, refreshing and potently flavoured, there wasn’t enough of the ice cream to go around given the voluptuousness of the tart. The pastry didn’t have much to say for itself either. Crispy Rendang and Tarmac Guts didn’t share my downbeat assessment though, frolicking in the tart’s sticky charms.
Of the desserts I tried, the one true unconditional success was the pear and pecan frangipane tart. The light yet crunchy and buttery pastry was a fine vessel for the terrific twosome inside. The dense nutty crunch of smashed pecans was the perfect foil for the sweet tartness of squidgy pears. This pairing could arguably have done with more pears and less of the somewhat intrusive thick double cream, but this was still a marvellous dessert.
If there’s one thing that’s not in doubt, it’s that the Holborn Dining Room and its pies are immensely eye pleasing. Although its polished and dark wood-pannelled décor is essentially that of a gussied-up brasserie, it was just sumptuous enough to trigger Templeton Peck’s nervous socialist tick and trick him into thinking that this is a much ‘fancier’ restaurant that it really is. The hesitant, error-prone and occasionally hard to pin down staff hardly provide the level of service I would expect in a restaurant at this price, charming chequered uniform trousers notwithstanding.
The all-conquering pies and other pastry goods are, for the most part, very good indeed.
Even so, and rather inevitably, they can’t quite meet the unrealistic expectations engendered by the unsustainable social media hype. Neither can they quite justify their relatively high prices, but that’s a very close-run thing. Nevertheless, if you want to convince someone of the beauty of British pies and pastry, then the Holborn Dining Room is, without a doubt, the place to do it.
Name: Holborn Dining Room
Address: Rosewood Hotel, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN
Phone: 020 3747 8633
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday 07.00-22.30, Saturday 07.30-22.30. Sunday and Bank Holidays 07.30-22.00. The Pie Room takeaway hatch is only open on weekdays 11.00-16.00.
Reservations: highly recommended the closer you get to the weekend.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £70 approx.