It sounds like an East End gangster pub, at least to me, but the Hat and Feathers is London's newest food-inclined drinking establishment. It's in Clerkenwell which is only vaguely east of the centre and it's recently been renovated after years of neglect. Attractive and well located, it's a mystery why it hadn't been properly developed earlier. It had only been open a few days and I wasn't sure if it was serving food yet, so I persuaded Tristan to join me in an exploratory visit last Thursday evening.
Downstairs was really quite busy and once we established that they were serving food we wondered if we'd be able to find seats. It was definitely a pub. Lots of drinking, no discernible eating. If you did manage to sit down here and get some food, you probably wouldn't be that happy eating it there. It's nice enough but just a bit too cluttered and noisy (all hard surfaces) to enjoy dining there. We soon discovered that there was an upstairs dining room and so we gathered our beverages and trekked up there. At this point it became clear that we weren't in a gastropub. We were in fact two quite separate environments in the same building, downstairs may be a boozer, but upstairs is a significantly formal restaurant.
It's softly lit, there are carpets, there are gaslights and tasteful winter decor. There are table clothes and cloth napkins. There are proper waiters. Yep, it's a fully fledged, rather nice restaurant . . . completely different to the hullabaloo downstairs. The night we went there were only two other parties in the 26 (or so) cover room. I'll bet it will soon be hard to get a table here. And the food? That's rather good too.
The menu is at first glance similar to the one at Bacchus. It's progressive haute cuisine style food, but slightly toned down to allow a less expensive dining experience. Bacchus is more adventurous though and at the Hat and Feathers any foams, jellies, sous-vide and the like are kept peripheral or background. There is also no tasting menu, perhaps an attempt by the restaurant to keep one for one the ground, or at least not run before it can walk. Each dish - starter, main and dessert has an individual wine pairing available by the glass, with most of these around £6. This is user-friendly.
Soon after sitting down two complimentary glasses of fizz arrived. Service was attentive and friendly despite clearly being its early settling-down days. As a starter, Tristan ordered risotto with poached smoked haddock, saffron foam and chives. I had confit duck, orange powder, roasted beetroot and Parmesan. The waiter warned me that this was in fact a kind of salad . . . I ordered it anyway figuring that the confit duck would sufficiently sate my appetite for unhealthy food. For mains, Tristan had rump of lamb with breads, butternut and mint puree. I had slow roasted fillet of beef, anchovy crumbs, onion horseradish.
Tristan was very happy indeed with his risotto - it was competently cooked with the right sense of creaminess, just loose enough. The fish was very well cooked indeed and the saffron foam added worthwhile interest. Of course, saffron is a familiar flavour used with risotto (with Osso Bucco) and it's also a well known fish accompaniment. So, a reasonably clever confluence. My own salad wasn't quite as good but was certainly interesting and edible. The orange powder never overwhelmed but and brought thoughts of duck a l'orange, but with a fresher, not-cloying taste. I'm afraid this was all slightly lost in the frisee lettuce that provided the bulk of the salad - maybe a replacement for this could be found? The Parmesan was provided as a thin wafer biscuit. This had an intensely savoury-umaminess . . . delicious.
The main courses featured the smears and such that you'd expect to find in these kind of dishes. My fillet of beef did not have any of the qualities of a slow roast it was succulent in the way you'd expect of a sous-vide dish. Indeed, for a normal slow roast you wouldn't use a lean cut like a fillet - what you want is meat with a high degree of fatty interconnection, e.g. braising steak, oxtail, lamb shanks . . . with these the fat melts and you're left with a soft, unctuous meat creation. I queried the fillet's cooking with the waiter and then later with the chef. It had been wrapped in cling-film and then cooked at 50 degrees for five hours (he might have said seven). I do wonder what the difference in end result between this and using a water bath and vacuum sealing would be? This dish, as with a sous-vide one, will divide audiences, with some preferring greater and variant caramelisation. For me, though, a beef fillet should be about succulence . . . this was achieved.
The anchovy crumbs could have been more prominent. The horseradish presentation was clever . . . it was a sorbet, balanced on a small disc of the onion puree: a joke about its heat. It tasted good too and matched the beef. Tristan's lamb was soft and pink and he seemed very pleased with it and quite excited by the entertaining components on his plate.
Dessert looked fiddly, but I like that stuff. I had 'three strawberries'. One of these was a firm sponge-mousse-type thing (hmm . . . need the proper term for this) with a jelly top, one was a sorbet and one was fresh in a tartlet case. There were also three raspberries, sliced artfully on the plate and a line of wonderfully tasty strawberry powder (made by just drying strawberries in an oven and then crushing them). I started off impressed by the dish, but overall it was just too sweet and I was predominantly left with thoughts of jam. Tristan had a lemon tart that was not really recognisable as such, but he declared it delicious.
Overall, with a glass of wine with each course, this came to £60 a head, including service. I haven't really mentioned the wines so far. To go with the confit I had a Rioja that defied Rioja cliches and matched the dish well. The felt the Bordeaux that came with the beef was a bit pedestrian.
So, what's the deal with the stark contrast in styles between the restaurant and the bar below? My guess is that the bar is the real revenue earner whereas Adam Culverwell, the chef, will try to use the restaurant as a springboard for greater things. That this place really wants to be a restaurant, rather than a pub, is reinforced by the loos . . . I wouldn't normally comment on this kind of thing, but the Hat and Feathers' don't really belong in a boozer . . .
Hat and Feathers, 2 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5PQ 02074902244