The Londesborough, Stoke Newington

What is it that separates a bad meal from a good one, and for that matter a good dinner from a great one?  I ask because in the world of gastropubs serving traditional English Sunday lunch, it is so easy to fall into the modern curse of mediocrity by turning out a moderately competent and acceptable but ultimately average roast meat and veg.  The fact is that it’s so easy to buy in commoditised ingredients for a roast that there are any number of corners to be cut, but even when gastropubs do make a roast from scratch all are not equal.

Fact is that standards are unquestionably higher than they used to be, yet so many still turn out to be identikits and fail to stand out from the crowd.  Perhaps the greatest burden here is that gastropub chefs all learned the same tricks and repeat them ad nauseum; the one that fills me with ennui is piling food vertically and leaving acres of white plate around the outside.  It would be good if we could drop the pretension and focus instead on good old-fashioned virtues of simplicity, quality, taste and texture and without following the crowd and dictats of fashion.

With these thoughts in mind I was happy for my companion take me to her local gastropub, the Londesborough in the now gentrified east London borough of Stoke Newington.  It’s a pub I’ve been to once before, for a drink, though on that occasion the excellent homemade pork pies and piccalilli located on the central bar won my tacit approval, as did the well-kept ale.

Bearing in mind the heritage of this pub as a traditional east end local (see pic above), it’s appropriate that the current owners have retained the stripped back appearance, mitigated by a few comforting touches such as a log fire in the back.  The biggest difference from yesteryear is that this is now squarely a dining pub, attracting families with young children and dogs.

That it was packed and is apparently always booked to the hilt says much for the quality of the food and ambience, and the fact that we could only book a table for lunch at 4pm also says a lot, this being the trade-off when you find somewhere serving decent grub.  I’d have preferred a table where I did not get a cold draft down my back every time anyone entered or departed, but needs must – the table and food came first.  That and beer – on this occasion a very decent pint of Bath Ales Gem.

It was the licensee waiting on our table, too – a very rare occurrence.  A pleasant and efficient chap whose only query was to ensure our first round of drinks had been paid for and were not therefore to be added to the food tab.  He brought us the Sunday lunch menu of the day, slightly different and a touch pricier than the sample menu on the website, but no less interesting.

Excluding veggie mains, the choice came down to roast belly pork, roast beef with all the trimmings, chicken with thyme and chilli (!), cod loin and shoulder of lamb stuffed with carrots and apricots.  After an enquiry about how rare the beef was (medium rather than rare at 4 o’clock!), I went for the lamb, while my companion the pork.  I might well have gone for the pork too, but for the fact that I’d had excellent roast pork the previous day, courtesy of my sister – an excellent cook – and the fact that I was likely to have pork the following day too: three in a row is overkill!

The food arrived without undue haste but in good time, and it looked the very picture of an excellent Sunday lunch.  Both plates included a small heap of cubed roasted root veg and a serving of nicely cooked mixed greens, excellent roasties and a perfect example of the now ubiquitous Yorkshire; time was that it was only served with beef but nowadays everyone expects a pud with their roast.  I heartily approve of both plates being served with a proper puddle of meaty gravy, not splodges or smears.

As for the meat, you couldn’t argue.  Regular readers will know my habit is to slow-cook belly or shoulder of pork, and indeed shoulder of lamb – often overnight – in the Aga.  The result is meltingly tender meat with well-rendered fat on both meats, crisp crackling on the pork, as it should be – and topped with a veil of homemade apple sauce.

The belly pork served in the Londesborough was definitely up to the mark, and encouragingly served on the bone for the best flavour.  The lamb you could cut with a fork, though it had acquired a dark timbre indicative of having sat around under infra-red lights.  I didn’t try the pork, but the rich deep goodness in my plate of lamb was certainly up to the mark.  The provenance of the meats was not recorded on the menu, but this was most assuredly not meat procured from the nearest Tesco.

We shared a decent bowl of marmalade bread and butter pudding with proper vanilla custard for afters and felt that a bill south side of £50 was not unreasonable for what was clearly a superior Sunday lunch.  Maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but certainly better than your average gastropub.  My companion pointed out that having tried all the pubs in Stoke Newington and Shoreditch, this was the best; the nearest match in terms of quality was in Islington, where you pay Islington prices afforded by the great, the good and the expense account diners.

If I had to be critical, I’d have to say that the website is a mess, but that’s not why you choose the pub. However, I do wish they would find some way to minimise the draught by the door, and maybe to make the seats a tad more comfortable too.  The food though made it worth a visit, so do make the most of the Londesborough if you’re passing, but remember to book early.