Branching out from its hotel empire, Malmaison has opened its own take on a British pub, the Fox and Anchor in London's Smithfield. Michael Raffael reports
"We were very clear that we didn't want to do a gastropub" - that's the first point John Woodward makes when describing the Fox and Anchor. Executive chef at London's Malmaison, he engineered the menu at the famous Smithfield pub when it was bought last year by his CEO, Robert Cook, and Richard Balfour-Lynn, chairman of Malmaison's parent group, MWB.
Despite being within a trotter's throw of the hotel, the Fox and Anchor operates as a separate unit. It does its own cooking, picks its own suppliers, and employs its own staff. It doesn't have a head chef. "We tried having one," Woodward admits, "when we opened at the end of November, but it didn't work."
Instead, he'll pop in every morning to organise blackboard specials. He may take over himself if sessions become too hyper. The rest of the time, three cooks run the kitchen under the pub's landlord, Scott Malaugh.
Historic London inns have learnt the knack of creating a typically Dickensian ambience, but few manage to pull off English cooking without it seeming tired. Woodward, a Marco Pierre White old-boy, has stuck rigidly to traditional recipes, presenting them in a modern, accessible way.
The key is attention to detail. Hard-boiled egg or cockle bar snacks (£1.50 per portion) are pickled in-house. The Fox makes its own pork scratchings, too, using pork supplied by Plantation Pigs.
Woodward tweaked the menu three times in the opening three months. A section of savouries on toast has gone. Instead, the most popular of these, field mushroom and chicken liver on toasted sourdough (£5.95) and Welsh rarebit (£4.95), remain as starters.
Other starters include potted pig's head and piccalilli (£5.95), served in Kilner jars on a platter, in a large portion size that makes it an attractive pub lunch option. There's a choice of oysters (£1.50-£2.50), split pea and ham soup (£4.50) and mussels in cider (£6.95).
Six "Fox's pies" play variations on a ragoût theme. Steak and oyster (£12.50), for instance, is a bowl of beef carbonade with a ballooned pastry lid, served with a fresh oyster on the side. Other mains - steak, egg and chips (£13.95), and cod in Battersea beer batter with fat chips and mushy peas (£12.50) - are standards with no hidden twists.
Tracklements condiments in the three snug bars where most customers dine emphasise the point that this isn't Provençal cuisine by the back door. There are no fewer than six brand-leading bottles, from mustard to Worcestershire sauce, on each table. Napkins have a band across them with "class cloth" written into the fabric.
Retro cool? In a former incarnation, the Fox and Anchor was a regular drop-in spot for market porters. Now, its centre of gravity has shifted to feeding the office workers of Clerkenwell. Pewter beer mugs, real ales and the 100-plus wines it stocks in its cellar prove that the blood, spit and sawdust days are gone.
As a formula, it's working. The spend is just under £20 per head, weighted slightly towards the food. At lunch, customers typically order one course. They expect to be fed within 20 minutes and can book their order by phone. At dinner, they may linger over a three-course meal with a side order of goose fat chips (£3), finishing with a knickerbocker glory (£5.50) or cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy (£4.50).
From Monday to Friday it averages 40 to 50 covers at each service, but it sells no food on Saturdays and closes on Sundays.
Although it doesn't feel like a chain pub, it is replicable. According to Woodward, a new Pub du Vin, next to Brighton's Hotel du Vin, is about to open. Many of the Fox's features will have influenced the concept. Two more units are at the planning stage.
Malaugh, a former Malmaison F&B man, thinks that the Fox and Anchor has been an instant hit. "It fills a unique niche in the area," he says. "There's nothing like it. We're the only place round here that offers British food, served quickly and at a competitive price."
What's on the menu
Maldon oyster bar (oysters grown by Richard Emans in the Blackwater river, Essex)
- Rock, £1.50
- Native number 2, £2
- Native number 1, £2.50
- Mussels cooked in Aspall cider, £7.95
- Herb-baked queen scallops and garlic butter, £7.95
- Field mushrooms and chicken liver on toasted sourdough, £5.95
- Cumbrian lamb shank pie, £11.95
- Steak tartare with chips, £14
- Ham hock and colcannon mash, parsley sauce, £11.95
- Knickerbocker glory, £5.50
- Spotted dick, £5.50
The Fox and Anchor, 115 Charterhouse Street, London EC1M 6AA. Tel: 020 7250 1300. Website: www.foxandanchor.com