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The Canonbury Tavern, review: fantasy unfulfilled

George Orwell’s final contribution to the Evening Standard, published on February 9, 1946, was the charming essay The Moon Under Water, describing what he loved most about his favourite public-house. It had “uncompromisingly Victorian” architecture and fittings and open fires, was “always quiet enough to talk” and served “a good, solid lunch”, but its  great surprise was its garden  — “its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone”. Or vice versa? Perhaps not.

Orwell then admitted what “the discerning and disillusioned reader” would have already guessed — “there is no such place as The Moon Under Water” (Wetherspoon has since cynically opened 15 outposts under the name). But his fantasy was based on the best qualities of pubs he knew, including for sure the  garden of the Canonbury Tavern, since he had moved to 27B Canonbury Square in October 1944.

So here’s a pub with a lot of history.  Having been a public house since the early 1700s, the Canonbury was demolished and rebuilt in 1846. After a fire early last century, the top floor was removed and never replaced — which is why it’s so low-built, though so wide, with a  staircase leading nowhere. Earlier this year it was acquired by the big brewers and landlord Young’s — who have had it refurbished by Harrison Design, responsible for many of their establishments, and have brought in, as general manager, with his name over the door, Oisin Rogers, who ran The Ship near Wandsworth Bridge for them for the past few years.

There’s a big bar area, serving pub food, near the entrance — and at the back, a large restaurant, serving a different menu. It all feels quite cavernous, with lots of shiny wood panelling, mix and match furniture and elaborate filament bulb lighting arrangements. But the real surprise is still stepping outside and seeing just how much garden space it has for a London pub.

There’s a giant horse chestnut, now flowering beautifully — if doomed later to brown off sadly, as nearly all in London now do — and a shrubby border along one side with some sharply clipped L-shaped hedges of purple beech breaking up the space. The furniture ranges from an area packed like a chessboard with some dark rattan boxy arrangements to more randomly scattered traditional pub benches, chairs and tables. Unfortunately, this garden is still mostly surfaced with ugly concrete slabs and astroturf — but the sky is big and there’s the occasional swift and shrieking parakeet zooming around overhead. Air!

Historic: the pub dates back to the early 1700s (picture: Paul Winch-Furness)
It’s the main attraction, this garden. It’s said that George Orwell drafted some of 1984 here, perhaps under this very chestnut tree. So how great it would be to be able to recommend this relaunch wholeheartedly. We can’t. Rogers, the full Irishman, a sometime dining companion of Fay Maschler in these pages, enjoyed a great reputation at The Ship but can’t be said yet to have got on top of this challenge. We tried the restaurant first. From the starters, clams in garlic and lemon butter with parsley cornbread (£8) were much the most enjoyable dish, salty but satisfying, going well with the naturally sweet slices of cornbread. Crab arancini (deep-fried rice-balls) with a salad of gloopy avocado, grapefruit bits and watercress (£7.50) were two small, horribly over-fried, darkened balls with little flavour.

From the mains, hake fillet, chorizo, slow-cooked potatoes, spinach, scallops and saffron butter (£16) was also crude — a decent bit of fish, but the chorizo delivered just as one vast unappetizing lump, while no saffron was detectable; the scallops had been swapped for mussels and the small potatoes had been browned into wrinkles without gaining any notable flavour.

The vegetarian option, truffled celeriac with green apple, pied de bleu and fried egg (£11) was another disaster:  a patty of creamy celeriac slices without any discernible truffle aroma, hard fried, with big unrewarding chunks of dry-fried pied de bleu mushroom, while the egg sitting on top was so overcooked —  an error any competent kitchen should fix before sending the dish out — its yolk was solid, its white leathery. It was not just hard to cut, it had alarmingly sharp edges.

We tried one pudding, coffee floating island with banana, caramel and espresso custard (£6), ile flottante being a light, easy dessert every modest French bistro makes readily. In this case, the egg white instead of being an airy nothingness was like a thick, misbegotten omelette. Although the place wasn’t busy, service was slow and inattentive. The nice waitress herself recommended I shouldn’t leave any service, for which kindness I gave her a tenner.

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We went back another evening to try the grill menu outside. Fish and chips (Camden PA battered cod, crushed peas, tartare sauce, thick-cut chips, £12) was fine. However, pulled pork shoulder sandwich with coleslaw and fries (£12) just wasn’t that: it was a regular triple decker sandwich of cold, white, sliced, perfectly ordinary pork, half fat, none too appealing. We gave up.

When Orwell knew Canonbury, it was, he said, a “decaying slum”. It is now one of Islington’s prime millionaire’s rows and the residents here have plenty of choice, money and, who knows? taste, too. The offer at the Canonbury, as we experienced it, isn’t going to make the cut. The drinking in the garden is good, the beer fine, if the wine’s expensive (£8.75 a glass of El Coto rioja, All Saints Durif Aussie, £9.95). Maybe it’ll improve? It must.


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