The day autumn finally kicked in and the heating was switched back on throughout the land seemed perfect to revisit the Anchor & Hope, the worst kept secret in London's increasingly gastropub dominated dining scene. A menu that genuinely changes sitting by sitting and a kitchen that revels in turning out very un-restauranty slow cooked sharing dishes... this place was surely made for the darker months when the game's had a chance to hang and the soul needs its fix of hearty fare. That's not to say it's not worth a trip in the summer - they have a fine touch with a broad bean - but who can resist the charms of a pot roast duck "for two or three" when it's blowing a gale outside and has been raining since sun-up? Judging by last night, no-one in the English-speaking world.
Reviews of the Anchor & Hope inevitably draw attention to the no bookings policy, and it would be a shame to disappoint the veteran review addict. They have a no bookings policy. Live with it. The staff are adept at managing expectations and can somehow always locate you in the heaving pub when it's your turn without any need for flashing numbers or other technical jiggerypokery. It works: the place is packed with hopefuls from the minute the doors open until whenever they close the list (10-ish I think). And I've only ever had to wait more than an hour when I wanted a table for six (we were told it would be two hours and for once they weren't being pessimistic). If, as last night, there's only two of you, the chances are you'll be sitting down before you've finished your first pint. As my companion for the evening, a theatre critic, pointed out, you'd be taking a risk if you pitched up for a meal before popping along to see Kevin at the Old Vic, but if you want a quick meal you're probably best going elsewhere.
Of course if there's only two of you you'll be missing out on the hefty sharing dishes for which the Anchor & Hope is rightly famous. Last night's star turn was the slow cooked shoulder of lamb and gratin douphinoise "for five-ish" and a snip at £62.50 even if just four were sharing it. This looked amazing, as did the pot roast duck with girolles and peas, which arrived still in the pot with a knife and a couple of spoons. Brilliantly simple, faintly daunting, but well worth the effort (can you tell I've been here before?).
The last portion of the night's specials (don't forget to ask) was unfortunately snapped up by the couple next to us on our communal table. It was a good sized sea bass and looked terrific, but missing out on it had a silver lining: I could let the selfishness kick in and go for the single-word item that had been staring at me from the minute I was handed the menu. Grouse. So much promise in five simple letters. It wasn't to disappoint.
To start, I went for the snails, bacon and laverbread on duck fat toast, unable to resist the bread-on-toast gag. A generous array of meaty gastropods nestled on and around the deceptively light toast, the bacon acting unobtrusively as a seasoning and the rich seaweedy goo holding everything together beautifully. Evie went for the salt cod brandade, which came with roasted red peppers, some light dry toast for dipping and half a beautifully cooked hardboiled egg, its creamy yellow yolk screaming 'organic'. The brandade was delicate, smooth, almost bland but with a satisfyingly long buttery finish.
By now we were tucking into a full and fruity Chateau du Cèdre 2004 Cahors (I was there last week and couldn't resist). Our friendly and well informed waiter was suitably embarrassed when he realised it wasn't the advertised 2003 (which I am reliably informed is drinking very well at the moment) but it was a treat nonetheless.
Evie plumped for the rotolo for main, three slices of what must have been a hefty roll of pasta stuffed with black cabbage, ricotta, parmesan and sage. It again verged on the bland, but happily once more didn't quite get there. The grouse, however, was off the other end of the scale. Punchy, earthy, tangy and with the almost medical taste you get with really well hung game. It came pink, but not bloody (which I think is spot on) and with a bouquet of water cress comically shooting out its bum. All very intense but as nothing to the two accompanying toasts which were spread liberally with a paté made from the bird's liver. These plumbed new depths of gaminess and I confess I could only manage one. A tour de force, though, and no qualms about the hefty price tag. I'd rather spend £28 on a dish like this, I think, than risk spending half that (last time I checked) on raw ingredients and then overcooking it.
To follow, a chocolate tart for Evie, which was the closest we got to a bum note - not intense enough and with a curious texture - and an improvised glass of homemade vanilla ice cream and Pedro Ximenez Viejo Napoleon NV sherry for me. This last - an impromptu suggestion from our waiter that had him jumping up and down with excitement - was brilliant. And believe it or not I normally shy away from boozy puddings. By now the Cahors was finished and we'd moved on to a demi carafe of very gluggable Gaillac (last week's influence again).
All in all a first rate meal. I can't even bring myself to moan about the glasses (cognac from a tooth mug anyone?). I can't wait for the long winter nights to draw in still further.
The Anchor & Hope, 36 The Cut, London SE1 8LP. 020 7928 9898