Another pub falls to the gastro-upgrade. But the services of a chef formerly with Adam Byatt at Hospital, mixed with a funky, baroque design is bringing good food to north London, says James Aufenast.
Crouch End is well served by eateries, but you'd be hard pushed to have a decent meal. Without the ethnic community that provides the ballast in other parts of London or the haute cuisine of the centre, this district has to make do with a watered-down version of Asian or endless cafés for yummy mummies.
So Villiers Terrace will be a relief to many, coming as it does from entrepreneur Mark Humphries and head chef Richard Teague, who's worked with Adam Byatt at his short-lived Hospital restaurant, Home bar in Shoreditch and Market in Camden.
You'd expect a mix of modern European and British in his food and there is a slight Mediterranean tinge, along with the fashion in most gastropubs of St John-style offcuts - braised pig cheeks are served with broad beans and chorizo. Roast wood pigeon fulfils the game option, cooked nicely pink and sprinkled with large salt flakes that lift the flavour, served with beetroot that added its juice and colour to a pan-juice and stock sauce, plus lentils that could have been cooked longer and with more herbs.
However, being Crouch End, the vegetarian options are more numerous than normal. The cliché of the area being filled with Guardian-reading bean-eaters has been embraced by Humphries. "I was told there were lots of vegetarians here," Teague says, "and that they would have to be catered for."
Like any chef, bar Passard and his acolytes, Teague has probably been slightly forced into this stance, but he's responded well. Not only do we have cauliflower and Parmesan soup to start, but also asparagus with deep-fried poached egg and hollandaise plus blue cheese, watercress, blood orange and beetroot salad. Then there's heritage tomato and goats' cheese salad, and there's still room for leek and Parmesan tartlet, apple, hazelnut and baby leaves.
Phew at least the asparagus gives Teague a chance to claw back some gross profit, more than 70% at £6.75, that he's lost on the scallops with Parma ham, fennel and apple salad, which is more like 60%. There's a margin message in here: plants help your business.
But, veggie obligations aside, the leek and Parmesan mini-tart was very good, the cheese giving a tang and edge and the pastry suitably short and crumbly. It was paired with tasteless spinach leaves, but some juicy apple slices that worked all the better for being thinly sliced.
For mains, a classic skate with caper butter dish came with the addition of mash and samphire, the latter adding a salty tang, but the skate being seared on the outside, not melting softly into butter that wasn't blackened enough.
However, a rectangle of pork belly on the other hand showed excellent technique: slow roasted, melting and fibrous, without the dried-out texture that can so often accompany the cut. It sat with some luxury mash - lots of butter and cream whipped into a spiral, and more pan juice plus stock sauce.
The food is verging on restaurant territory and the wine list is of a similar bent, 42 bins that show understanding of the market - Côteaux de l'Ardeche in the Rhône rather than Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Primitivo from Puglia not Cabernet, a white Galician that isn't the ubiquitous Rias Baixas.
We drank a lively, herbaceous 2008 Sauvignon de Touraine from Domaine Guy Allion in the Loire - the value alternative to Sancerre, then Chilean Merlot. One would normally run a mile from this drop but the winemakers at Viu Manent in Colchagua have squeezed acidity and red fruit to make up for the lack of tannins in this 2007, and it matched up well with the pigeon starter - although why not the property's even better Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc?
Humphries has brought in the rocker chic designs of Paul Daly, he of pool bar chain The Elbow Room and Hoxton trendy spot Zigfrid to change the interior and the two rooms are certainly an odd mix. Its urban baroque of ornate seating, heavy curtains and chunky rails and chandeliers are mixed with a rough-hewn wood mantelpiece and a ski lodge-style bar. The site isn't the easiest either, away from the high street and opposite a garage, yet there's a genuinely unpretentious vibe helped by friendly but not fawning service and the buzz of plenty of customers: so far so good.
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Cauliflower and Parmesan soup
- Cornish crab linguine, shallots, tomato, tarragon
- Pressed ham hock terrine, piccalilli
- Aberdeen Angus onglet steak, chips, béarnaise
- Braised rabbit, pappardelle, tomato, herbs
- Seared tuna niçoise
- Smoked haddock, prawn, leek and pea fish pie, buttered greens
- Free-range corn-fed chicken breast, crushed potatoes, wild garlic leaf
- Halloumi, grilled butternut squash, walnut and rocket salad
- Pappardelle, pied blue musrooms, broad beans, pecorino