Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Canton Arms

177 South Lambeth Road, London. £15pp not including drinks.

We were unlikely quartet of diners in the Canton Arms that evening:

A Russian of my acquaintance (crazy in a good way), a young Irish girl who I currently live with (crazy in both the good and bad ways), myself (crazy, probably in a bad way) and the Russian's American sister (pretends to be crazy to get the meds).

The Russian had flown his sister in from South Carolina the previous week for a party he was hosting, and we had been degenerating since then. I had been feeling unhinged and paranoid for several days, and the Russian's mysterious skin condition had returned spectacularly.

Still, there's no better dining venue in Old London Town than the Canton to bring a comforting, meaty normality back into one's life.

The South Lambeth Road pub re-opened its doors earlier this year under a management team who have had success with a number of other posh pubs in London, and was met with a generous slathering of superlatives in the national press, and immediate enthusiasm from the locals.

We began, as is apparently mandatory, in the bar area with the famed Foie Gras toastie. Now this is a nice idea, an idea described by John Lanchester in The Guardian as 'so epic I can't believe no one thought of it before.' And whilst I am inclined to agree, I would also point out that idealism has been known to numb the senses. And great ideas don't necessarily make great eating.

The particular problem I feel they come up against is the need to butter the outside (for crispness) coupled with a meat filling that is almost exclusively goose fat making for a mouthful so greasy that it tickles the gag reflex.

Through in the dining room (no reservations, but rarely a long wait) we analysed the pithy, meat-driven and very reasonably priced menus and couple of specials to share. Both menus and specials change daily, which offers ample encouragement for repeat visits, but leads to occasional disappointment when certain dishes sell out before the end of the evening. Alack we fell foul of this, when the kitchen proved unable to execute the Russian's epic order: "I'll have the special steak-for-two, for one, as it were."

Undeterred, we finally decided on potted shrimps and Jerusalem Artichoke soup as starters, boiled gammon, whole roast partridge, roast plaice fillet and a strange vegetarian pie-thing involving fennel and Swiss chard as mains. All to be washed down with a selection of ales for the men folk and wine, from a fairly idiosyncratic list, for the women.

The real standouts were the alliterative trio of partridge, plaice and potted shrimps. My plaice was a top quality piece of fish with a deeply savoury crunchy crust on the skin. The American tackled her good-looking partridge with glee, and potted shrimps were well seasoned and served properly, at a warmish room temperature.

Other visits have suggested that any dish involving slow cooking (ox-tail, venison haunch &c.) is likely to be blindingly good, and I once got a plate of veal heart that made me want to hug the chef. It's proper unpretentious cooking, made by people with an interest in eating, and paying great respect to impeccable ingredients.

All this is not to say the place doesn't have it's quirks: The commendably terse menu descriptions, for example, are completely accurate. Your plate will be replete with teeth, eyes and taste but sans pretty much everything else, which means that every dish you order they suggest a side of potatoes or vegetables as well. The food is good value, but you're only getting half a meal, which is a sneaky way of adding an extra few quid on to every order.

It should also be noted that at peak times you will have to wait for a table, and then probably be seated on a table sharing with another party. This is all very well, but it is a method of dining for which etiquette has yet to be fully formed. This leads to people like me who will sit down and immediately take all the other places' napkins and make sure that the single set of salt and pepper pinch pots is firmly ensconced at my end of the table, perhaps pick my nose a bit for good measure.

A friendly, delicious and reassuringly simple meal. Leave your crazy at the door.

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