I can certainly see the allure of being a proper food critic (i.e., stringing proper sentences together, getting paid to do this, free meals), but sometimes it appears as though some of that ilk decide to nitpick just for the sake of being contrary.
Example: when I think of comfort food, I imagine the more butter-enabled, fat-laden, meatful end of the spectrum. So when John Walsh wrote his review of the Crooked Well in Camberwell, I was a bit confused. He went in "...looking for comfort, and, more to the point, comfort food." He then proceeded to turn his nose up at nearly all of the mains, proclaiming the steak or venison with red cabbage and white pudding as being "too rich." And really, isn't duck with chorizo quite a common dish, despite his reservations about the seemingly exotic-sounding combination? Ok, enough about that (although judging by the article's comments, I wasn't alone in finding it all a bit churlish).
I made my second trip to the Crooked Well last month with a friend visiting from San Francisco. He's over quite frequently on business, and as we weren't venturing into the heart of the City, I thought this a perfect alternative to our usual haunt, the Palmerston. It was a Sunday night, and when we arrived at 7.30, the place was nearly empty, as opposed to the heaving atmosphere when we departed a bit after 10.
I found it to be quite warm and inviting: muted lighting with the obligatory candles on tables, lots of wood furniture slightly distressed but still attractive and comfortable. Being that I didn't note them down, I'm sorry to say I can't recall my companion's cocktails, although I had a couple of stellar whiskey sours. The staff are very relaxed and friendly, but make no mistake: it is a tightly run ship indeed. Service throughout was attentive, knowledgeable and unobtrusive.
Not long after we had sat down, a jazz band struck up in the far corner of the room. They were quite talented to be fair, but they started out far too loud. Conversation was not an option, and it didn't set the tone for the evening very well. However, we had a word with the staff who informed us that they'd already mentioned it to the band. Things got a bit better, although it still was a bit loud for 8pm on a Sunday night (probably just I showing my advanced years).
The menu reads as a fairly standard British-gastro-with-French-roots offering, but each of the dishes has its own character and unique touches. I opted for the Warm pigs head terrine whilst companion guy had the Crisp salt & pepper baby squid. The terrine's soft breaded exterior surrounded large, fleshy chunks of slowly cooked pork. Caramelised apple offered the perfect sweet and slightly acidic complement to the meat. And perfectly cooked scratchings....as my teacher at culinary school would say, "What's not to like?"
A crisp, delicate and perfectly seasoned batter ensconced lovely soft pieces of squid, all within a large salad of rocket, baby spinach, walnuts and some other bits. Good start indeed.
Mains followed in pretty much the same vein. A large disc of braised venison was wrapped in cabbage and placed atop a similarly generous blini. Small pieces of parsnip, carrot and swede were dotted around the edges with a venison jus. The meat had been braised all right - my knife never got near it. So tender, delicate; it was truly fantastic. The jus had been reduced to the point where it eventually started to solidify on the plate, and it was smooth, rich and generously portioned. The blini acted as a sponge for all of the juices although it was a bit burnt on the bottom.
I only had a small taste of the Calf liver, as the guy across the table wolfed it down - crisp exterior, soft melting liver-y insides , excellent flavour and texture of the ham....you get the picture.
Sides of Pommes frites and Seasonal greens - in this case, kale cooked simply with some olive oil and salt - were summarily inhaled in the most delicate manner possible. I can normally identify straight away whether chips are fresh or frozen, although these had me on the fence. But If they're well cooked, hot and taste fresh, them I'm generally satisfied. These ticked the boxes.
We had a bottle of Tabali 2010 Pinot Noir which was young but complex with soft tannins and a buttery feel to it. Markup was probably just nudging above the top end of what's standard (£27.50 as opposed to £10.50 in the shop).
I had just about enough room for the Rhubarb mousse; it was smooth and not too sweet, allowing the fruit flavour to take centre stage. It was topped with a thin disc of rhubarb jelly, a curly rhubarb tuile and a mini chocolate log. A biscuit base held up the ensemble, strongly reminiscent of that on a cheesecake. It provided the majority of the sweetness, along with a crunchy texture to offset the smoothness atop it all. Broken record here - it was delicious. The cinnamon ice cream on the other side of the table was refreshing and - here's a surprise - tasted overwhelmingly of cinnamon.
And back to the paid food critics: I would probably eat a couple of meals at a mediocre place in order to give it a proper - as objective as possible - review. But as the above prose more than details, I sadly am not. So it should come as no surprise that I've returned to a place I absolutely love. Many in the food writing / blogging / tweeting world cringe at the term "gastropub," feeling it to be in turns pretentious, asinine, nonsensical, and so on. But if it has a more benign definition, encompassing a pub that aims to provide truly special food not traditionally found on a pub menu, then the Crooked Well hits the mark. Quite spectacularly as well I might add.
The Crooked Well
16 Grove Lane
SE5 8SY (map)
Phone: 020 7252 7798