People who fancy themselves restaurant experts tend to bang on about The Anchor & Hope. ‘Have you been to The Anchor & Hope?’ they meaningfully demand of anyone who claims to enjoy eating out. Nope. ‘Oh, but you must. You really, really must.’ They make it sound like a recommendation, a friendly piece of advice. But make no mistake: The Anchor & Hope is one of the yardsticks by which the food Nazis assess you. You don’t measure up if you haven’t been - so I got myself down there quicker than quick.
It’s a gastropub. And almost without exception, gastropubs are awful. Flailing, calculated defences against squeezing margins and bogofing supermarkets. Nothing to do with hospitality. Pubs were built to serve nothing more complex than a communal ashtray of Bombay Mix. So all that skimped, flimsy catering equipment set up in hastily-revamped, rat-filled basements, in dirty old loos, upstairs broomcupboards and beer-garden sheds, those menus jotted down on beermats: it’s a slapdash skin-graft pubs are far better without. No wonder the food is always terrible. Sticking gastro- onto a nice old -pub is like putting a plastic strap on a Rolex.
When I began learning to drink – and it’s something I’ve learned rather well – ‘salmon steak on a bed of rice’, hormone-and-gristle burgers, and ‘Medditterranean vegetable tart’ were just appearing on pub menus, as welcome and appropriate as a stag-night hooker at the wedding. In spawning the gastropub, we jettisoned one of the core, not-just-for-tourists things that defined us as a nation – for rubbery mussels and tapeworm spaghetti. Saddest of all, at the precise moment the inklings of a British culinary revival seemed to be taking place, publicans shunned the very food that would have best suited their premises and their customers. When was the last time you saw steak and kidney pudding on a pub menu? And what about ‘Thai green curry’?
Admittedly, the menu at The Anchor & Hope is better. The restaurant is in the same lonely slump of Southwark as The Wine Theatre (closing soon, we hope, to boos and chucked tomatoes). Its space is markedly depressing – dark and dour as bracken; so we sat outside. This is another of St. John’s progeny, but without the austere charm and self-assured invention of the parent.
‘Gazpacho’ looks like an enthusiastic toddler picked up handfuls of stuff lying around the kitchen and dumped them over the soup. How the hell are you supposed to eat it? Croutons, egg, onions, parsley and worst of all… two bloody great ice cubes melting in the middle. The soup itself, which has too much chilli, is utterly overpowered by bitter onion and grassy parsley. It's barely an acceptable example of this great dish, and certainly no better than the one I had at Gallery Mess a couple of weeks ago.
‘Middlewhite tonnato’ is a porky reworking of the pan-Italian dish of veal with a sauce of what Elizabeth David always called tunny fish. It’s good, with acid little capers and a peppery afro of rocket. Ox heart is like chewing the face off a platypus. The meat has the texture and flavour of a well-used fly-swat. Nor is there any sign of the promised pickled walnuts.
Most grim is the priciest dish on the menu: roast pigeon with foie gras. It’s a tough and monstrous old bird, like Ann Widdecombe, and the runner beans are stringy as a harp. But these are simply ambrosia compared to the foie gras. It looks like something a woolly mammoth might cough up, or a jellyfish might menstruate. It leaches in unspeakable, sinewy globules over the pigeon, smothering all trace of flavour and texture. It’s probably the worst presentation of foie gras I’ve ever had, and it renders the dish emphatically inedible.
Puddings – thank God – are better, and hold the one delight of the meal. An elderflower jelly is perfect, one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. I’ve always loved the dew-wet, Shropshire scent of the flowers, sealed and settled by jelly. A little whipped cream and some gently poached gooseberries bring lingering, languorous flavours of summer. There’s also a tayberry ripple ice cream, which is a nice idea, although I’ve always found the tayberry the least impressive of Scotland’s soft fruits. Finally, a buttermilk pudding, which resembles a mammary implant and which tastes of gelatine-set bulimia.
The original chef of the Anchor & Hope has apparently jumped ship, and I imagine the current rudderless feel to the place will have something to do with that. This is a restaurant steered by faltering experience, propelled by the winds of reputation towards the jagged rocks of fiscal reality, with the monsters of competition thrashing beneath. It would do better to raise its anchor and set its hope on returning to its home shipyard – it would be better, in fact, as a pub.
The Anchor & Hope, 36 The Cut, London SE1
Tel. +44 (0)871 0757279
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £50
I can’t find a website for the Anchor & Hope. If you know of one, please let me know in the comments. Thanks.