Living away from London, as I do now, makes engaging with its food scene a predominantly visual act. Dishes are mediated through carefully-filtered Instagram shots. Famous influencers influence, bloggers blog, and you sit aching on the sidelines. As you puff on your first cigarette of the day, Scottish sun beating on your brow, you watch story after story of meal after meal wishing there was something you could taste other than smoke.
Exciting new restaurants remain exciting, because you can’t get there. Hype is hyperactive, and ripples across the internet, and you fall for it every time. I’ve lived that bloody turbot at Brat a million times without ever having stepped into the place. I’ve experienced the collective sigh of bathos with the tasting menu at Hide, without tasting a single dish. I’ve perused the new bar menu at Lyle’s, scoured the Clove Club wine list for gems, and haven’t yet ordered from either.
But so much of it is hype. And a bit of distance makes you realise that. Deep in the throng, groaning under the weight of a throbbing city, it’s hard to detach from what’s novel, what’s exciting, who’s wanted and why. For sure, social media exaggerates it. But when you’re unable to jump immediately from the new thing to the next, the gratification of novelty begins to wear off. You have time to pause, consider, regroup. Contemplate where you want to go and make the most – really make the most – of going, the next time you’re lucky enough to be hurtling toward King’s Cross on some Branson-branded train.
The Coach is a restaurant for those sorts of contemplative moments. Sure, it was hyped. But the hype fell away fast – is that happening faster nowadays? – and, besides, it lived up to it.
It’s not the sort of place, or cuisine, that sustains hype for very long. The place is decked out like a genuine, if somewhat upmarket, pub; stools, ales, a simple colour scheme. Nice wee beer garden in the back, conservatory, spacious upstairs dining room. Proper beer, Sunday lunch, and not a white linen tablecloth in sight. It’s a proper pub. Give it a few busy nights, euthanise the cleaning staff, and the place would fill up with spit and sawdust.
The food is magical, but really understated. It’s French bistro cooking, a little anglicised, a little modern, but somehow at the same time effortlessly classical. Rillettes, steak tartare. Provençal chicken, asparagus with hollandaise. Calf’s brains with capers in a black butter (texture a bit like paneer cheese, flavour a little like pork fat). According to people who know about these things, Henry Harris has imported a range of recipes in from his previous Brompton Road bistro Racine, such as the grilled rabbit in a mustard sauce with smoked bacon (which was delicious, by the way). He’s obviously been working at this for a while. But it’s done with such confidence, it almost feels laissez-faire. What comes out as simple on plate and palate belies a whole career learning, refining, and reinventing these sorts of dishes. It’s highly, highly accomplished.
The staff were quite simply lovely, both times I popped in, and the food consistently good. One of our waiters was almost giddy to tell us that Harris himself was in the kitchen on my debut visit. They seemed proud of what they were doing and what they were serving. Which they should be, because they and it are excellent.
And – ahh! How did I forget! Drop whatever you’re doing right now and get to London. The crème caramel. I’m not kidding. This is the sort of crème caramel to make your stoic father weep with the tears of angels. The sort to make you phone whoever writes the authoritative French dictionnaire and get them to redefine 'crème caramel' to only include this specific dish. Then phone the editor of the OED with the same request. It’s eggy and rich and nutty and creamy and it wobbles with glee and it sings with flavour and the fat renders on your tongue and, for one moment, life is suspended in immediate, truly immediate pleasure.
It’s excellent. Through and through. It’s consistent. It’s not overpriced, given I’ve had worse meals at places that charge three figures. It’s not overpriced to begin with. The wine list is simple but well balanced, the ales are kept well. It’s a pub’s pub, and a foodie’s restaurant, all in one subtle space.
The next time I’m en route to London, it’s going to be hard to go and try that bloody turbot, knowing that a little slice of Clerkenwell offers such a well executed experience. I only have to take a look at their Instagram account to be reminded: it really does live up to the hype.