CANTON ARMS: DOING THE LAMBETH WADDLE
If you’ve eaten out regularly in London during the past twenty years then it’s very likely you will have had food prepared by a group of female chefs who have not had nearly enough of the recognition they deserve. Like The Wrecking Crew – those session musicians who in the Sixties played on just about every hit going – these chefs have quietly got on with the business of cooking and turning out the sort of food that you’d want to eat every day.
People like Carol Cradock who cooked at Bibendum and Vinoteca, Rosie Sykes who was at Alastair Little and ran her own restaurant – the much missed Sutton Arms in Smithfield. Another of this band was Trish Hilferty who cooked at the Eagle, the first gastropub and who also ran her own place, The Fox in Shoreditch where I used to go several times a week for my supper.
That was several years ago and apart from writing some books I didn’t know where her career had taken her. That was until I pitched up at the Canton Arms in Stockwell on Saturday, where she’s opening up this new Ale and Food House - I think it’s preferred description - with staff she worked with at the Anchor and Hope and Great Queen Street (I’m sure you’ve all heard of those gaffs).
The setup at the Canton Arms will be familiar to anybody who’s visited the A&H or the Magdalen Arms in Oxford. There’s a pub bit and there’s a restaurant bit although you could probably eat what you want where you want – it’s that sort of place. Apparently, the aim is to not alienate the locals with any of the sort of fancy-schmancy nonsense you’d get North of the river. This playing it quietly for now extends to the menu which is pretty short and supplemented by a few bars snacks with (hallelujah) no Scotch Eggs to be had (the backlash begins here).
Speaking of bar snacks, irrespective of what I was going to choose for the rest of my meal there was no way I wasn’t going to order some Foie Gras Toasties. I’ve no idea if they’re an original idea - although I’ve never seen them on a menu – but they’re certainly a brilliant way of using that Breville toaster gathering dust in the cupboard.
I haven’t had a toastie since, oh, 1982 but I’m sure they never tasted like this. Rich, but in the nicest possible way they’re best eaten when the liver within has had a chance to go a bit runny. By accident I spilt some red wine onto my plate and some soaked into one of the golden-hued triangles. If anything it tasted even better. I’m putting this up there with the discovery of Fire and the Wheel…and it’s all mine.
A Cassoulet for two was the stuff of dreams - for Trenchermen (and women) and Hermanos, natch. The beans had been cooked so they retained a little bite and hadn’t disintegrated into mush. There were hunks of good Belly Pork topped with strips of crisp crackling and legs of good-flavoured Duck Confit. A layer of breadcrumbs added extra crunch. Only some fat sausages underwhelmed a little and got lost in the mix.
There was some moisture too so that the dish made for easy eating although next time I’ll take up on the offer of a green salad on the side, a Cassoulet really cries out for something sharp and vinegar based.. I made do with a dab of Dijon mustard, some of homemade Chutney and a glass of Marcillac.
Unlike many Cassoulets this one wasn’t overrich so a pud wasn’t out of the question. A little Chocolate Pot hit the spot, as it so often does, and a glass of a nascent Damson Gin made for a pleasant digestif although it didn’t prevent me waddling towards Stockwell Tube in the manner of the quack-quacks I had just eaten.
Bread from Di Lieto bakery is very good and apart from a bit of over-enthusiastic pouring, service was relaxed and professional, a A&H trademark.
I think the location should mean the Canton Arms will be frequented mainly by locals and not chinless yuppy hordes from Fulham (I don’t think they’d be able to navigate their way to Stockwell anyway) which I believe is the hope of the owners. So if you’re in the area pop in have a pint and a toastie or better still a plate of Trish Hilferty’s food and enjoy yourselves. Just don’t expect to find a fully formed Anchor and Hope Mark 2. Yet.
PS When I visited the Canton Arms had been open for three days.