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The Eagle Review

Neil McQuillian waxes poetic about Clerkenwell gastropubs

Written by . Published on August 25th 2011.


The Eagle Review

THERE’S a hint of bistro in there, and more than a soupçon of gastronomy, but to some, ‘gastropub’ is a term as unappetising as ‘gastroenteritis’. It’s a plump-sounding word, ripe for popping, and there are those who think the whole concept needs the same treatment, a pustule to be lanced. Sticking that ‘gastro’ on there does come off a little superior, like ‘über’ on a regular-Joe ‘mensch’, and it has often been implied in accounts of ‘London’s first gastropub’, that founder David Eyre saved The Eagle’s soul by taking it over in 1991. But saved it from what, exactly? The reinvention can hardly have been a case of injecting an element of bling, since the gastropub interior design template is pretty much squat chic, but reports of its former incarnation run along ‘grubby old alehouse’ lines.

In the chalkboard-scrawled description of ‘linguine with roast fennel, garlic, lemon and capers’ (£7.80) they missed out mention of the generous quantities of parmesan and oil, and it was these lubricants that took the plateful into a territory of richness that my partner found a little overbearing (though I thought it simply generous).

There is the tension that lies between the ‘o’ and the ‘p’, since many want their pubs to be just that – simple, drink-focused, bolthole boozers. It’s not just ideological, either, but logistical. Pub drinking is a low-key, head-down kind of pastime. The over-the-bar transaction is simple and little is required in the way of staff/customer interaction – it’s a perfect, time-tested system, which allows these spaces full of strangers to feel improbably homely. They’re (gastro)public houses, after all. The whole business of dining involves different dynamics – more fuss, basically – and it’s the gastropub’s big challenge to interfere with the old way of doing things and still work as a place for a quiet drink. Or even a not-so-quiet drink, without worrying that you’re disturbing a first date on their first course. There are many ways to get it wrong – a favourite boozer of mine recently gastro-ised and gentrified, and the transformation was working well at first. The staff went out of their way to make sure the old regulars continued to feel as welcome as the arriving hipsters, while the printed menus of modern British were available for those who wanted to eat, but it was OK if you didn’t. Unfortunately, that changed. Staff started asking drinkers to vacate their tables for (bigger-spending) diners – that’s no good.

Photo2 

The Eagle, however, is celebrating its twentieth year in 2011, and they’ve got the wonky, gastropub system running about as smoothly as it probably ever could. The way the cooking space has been incorporated it looks like it’s always been there. One side of the bar deals with the pub side of things, fitted out with taps and bottle-stacked shelves. The other half is taken up by the sliver of kitchen – a counter, topped with bowls of the menu’s sides, and a huge grill tipped a little toward the public space, as if to advertise its wares. Indeed, you’ll often find yourself plumping for the slightly more expensive grill-cooked items over the lighter dishes simply based on this visual temptation.

Picture 021 At an outside table, loomed-over by the oddly classical NCP car park across the road, we tucked into a dish of properly toothsome olives (£3.60) before moving inside. There were no tables available, so we took up a position on stools tucked down the side of the kitchen, next to the window. By the time a table was available we were attached to our den-like spot and decided to dine here, resting our plates on the wide window ledge. First up was a shared dish of İmam bayıldı (£7.50), a Turkish dish of stuffed aubergine which translates roughly as ‘the imam fainted’. I have had this recently in a Turkish restaurant, where it left me distinctly unmoved, but this example, served with tzatziki and fresh-tasting cous cous, did the dish’s legend proud.

Picture 060Gilthead breal with charmoula, spinach and salsa romesco

In the chalkboard-scrawled description of ‘linguine with roast fennel, garlic, lemon and capers’ (£7.80) they missed out mention of the generous quantities of parmesan and oil, and it was these lubricants that took the plateful into a territory of richness that my partner found a little overbearing (though I thought it simply generous). I had intended to finally try out their signature bife ana steak sandwich, but only had eyes for the marinated gilthead bream with charmoula, spinach and salsa romesco (£13.80) once I saw it on the grill. This was excellent – the mound of spinach would have filled a bucket in its uncooked state. So often under-seasoned, here its flavour shone through with an earthiness that suited the smoky, chunky fish and intense salsa romesco.

Named in part for a well – a source of nourishment – and once called ‘Little Italy’ (see grocers G Gazzano & Sons just down the road, who stock the same famed fennel sausages that the pub do), Clerkenwell has pleasing foodie connotations. With twenty years of excellence and still flying strong, The Eagle can safely be said to be part of that heritage.


The Eagle
159 Farringdon Road
EC1R 3AL, London


Rating:          17/20

Breakdown:  8.5/10 food
                   4.5/5 service
                     4/5 atmosphere

 

 

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: We get carried away.
 

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