Although the annual season for awards ceremonies in food and drink has drawn to a close, I would like to propose a one-off honour. It should be supported by all those who relish the excellent British produce currently on offer in some of London’s most evocative restaurants.
Sadly, the rightful recipients of the award, all male, have long since passed away. But if there is anyone still alive connected to those who laboured to build the railway arches that spread out from central London from the 1840s, would they please step forward. We food and drink lovers owe them a huge thank you.
It is hard to think of a single artisanal product on sale in London that does not benefit from being manufactured, churned or aged in these cool chambers. The numerous arches under the Spa Terminus in Bermondsey are today home to coffee roasting, bread making, cheese maturing, ice cream and beer making. And dotted around the capital are many more including the professional home of Christian Jensen, distiller of Bermondsey Gin.
Railway arches in more central parts of London have also long provided relatively inexpensive homes to wine bars and restaurants, although with three disadvantages. First, there is the rumble of the trains. Then there is the leaking water. Finally, the volume of these arches can mean the acoustics are harsh. But they do come with one undeniable advantage: they are invariably close to a transport hub.
We became immediately aware of this as we descended the steps at Hoxton railway station in Hackney, east London, turned left, and walked for no more than 50m to Beagle, which opened in early April.
What ensued over the next couple of hours was not just an excellent dinner but also an insight into how two young and sensitive restaurateurs, Danny Clancy, 32, and his younger brother, Kieran, have created a vibrant atmosphere in these Victorian arches as well as 30 new jobs.
Beagle, which takes its name from a Victorian steam train, occupies three arches which have been transformed into a bar, restaurant and kitchen respectively. The brothers explained that although they fell in love with the space when they first saw it two years ago, they had no idea it would come with quite so many challenges.
“Obtaining the alcohol licence was not easy as many arches have become nightclubs, which those who live nearby object to,” said Danny. “And no sooner had we taken on James Ferguson as our head chef than we were told that because of the potentially high risk of explosions we could not use gas in the kitchen under any circumstances.”
But the brothers have sensibly married the physical strength of the building to a menu that is clear, unfussy and a model of good design.
A first course of broad beans, peas and shards of Spenwood cheese was a quintessentially British dish, and any customer would be as delighted by the flavours as by the fact that all that shelling and podding had been done by someone else.
Two very different fish dishes were equally forthright in their flavours: succulent octopus topped with tomatoes and coriander, and a grilled Dover sole with Jersey royals. Only when Ferguson ventured into Italy with a dish of ricotta-stuffed agnolotti did the high standard drop into something rather too watery. However, the panna cotta with poached rhubarb was excellent while the deep, rich wedge of treacle tart was one of the best I have tasted. We drank a bottle of Pitticum 2008 from Bierzo, northwest Spain, and my bill was £115.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the restaurant is how the Clancy brothers are developing their new home in emphatically British fashion. Outside seating has been constructed from old railway sleepers; mixologist Myles Davies has been hired to create a cocktail list that incorporates British fruit and spirits; and they are buying charcoal for their robata grill from “a lumberjack based in Kent”. The restaurant’s clever logo and the menu’s precise typeface, by CO Workshop, are also expressions of that British flair.
What Beagle could really do with now is an equally talented acoustician. The exposed brickwork, wooden tables, music and alcohol meant that I heard more of the conversation from the table of five men next to me than the pearls of wisdom from my wife sitting directly opposite.
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397-400 Geffrye Street, London E2 8HZ; 020 7613 2967; www.beaglelondon.co.uk