This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Although the season for the annual award ceremonies in food and wine writing and restaurants has drawn to a close on both sides of the Atlantic, I would now like to propose a one-off award. It is on behalf of all those who currently relish the excellent British produce on offer in some of London’s most evocative restaurants.
Sadly, the recipients, all male, have long passed away and their names are therefore unknown. But if there is anyone still alive today who may be connected to the many who laboured so hard to build the arches that supported the railways as they spread out from central London in the 1840s and 1850s, would they please step forward. Food and wine lovers owe them all a huge thank you.
It is hard to think of a single, artisanal product that today does not benefit from being manufactured, churned or aged in these cool chambers. The numerous arches under the Spa Terminus in Bermondsey, south east London, for example, are today home to coffee roasting, bread making, cheese maturing, ice cream and beer making. And dotted around the capital there are many, many more including the professional home of Christian Jensen, once a banking IT specialist in Tokyo, now a distiller of Bermondsey Gin, a spirit once so popular in Victorian London.
Railway arches in more central parts of London have long provided relatively inexpensive homes to wine bars and restaurants although for these purposes the arches come with three particular disadvantages.
Firstly, there is the rumble of the trains above. Secondly, leaks are a constant problem in brickwork 170 years old and, finally, the volume of these arches can mean that the acoustics can be harsh, particularly as there are invariably restrictions on what can be attached to the walls. But these arches do come with one intrinsic 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, located directly opposite the exquisite Geffrye Museum, turned left, walked swiftly through the heavy rain for no more than 50 metres and arrived at the front door of the Beagle, which opened in early April.
What ensued over the next couple of hours was not just an excellent dinner but also an immersion into how two young and sensitive restaurateurs, Danny Clancy, 32, and his younger brother Kieran (pictured above by Charlie Bibby), have not only quickly established such a vibrant atmosphere in these Victorian arches but have also created 30 new jobs.
The Beagle, which takes its name from a Victorian steam train, is unusual in that it occupies three symmetrical and already interconnected arches which have today been transformed into a bar, restaurant, and kitchen respectively. The brothers explained that although they had fallen in love with the space when they first saw it two years ago they had no idea that 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’, Danny explained. ‘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 buildings they have inherited to a menu that is clear and unfussy and a model of clear graphic design.
A first course of broad beans, peas and shards of Spenwood cheese was a quintessentially British dish and one where any customer would be as delighted with the flavours as with the fact that the labour-intensive shelling, and podding, of all these ingredients had been done by someone else.
Two very different fish dishes were equally forthright in their flavours: a plate of succulent octopus topped with tomatoes and coriander and a grilled Dover sole with Jersey royals. Only when Ferguson ventured to Italy with a dish of ricotta stuffed agnolotti did this high standard drop. 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, north-west Spain, and my bill was £115.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of my visit was to appreciate how these arches have inspired the Clancy brothers to take their new-found home on the next stage of its existence in an emphatically British fashion.
The outside seating has been constructed from former railway sleepers over which the trains once ran. They have hired the aptly named Myles Davies as mixologist to create a cocktail list that incorporates British fruit and spirits and they buy their charcoal for their robata grill from someone the Clancys referred to as ‘a lumberjack based in Kent’. The restaurant’s clever logo and the menu’s precise typeface by Fabled Studio are also expressions of excellent British flair.
What the Beagle really could do with now is an equally talented acoustician. The exposed brickwork, wooden tables, music and the 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.
Beagle London 397-400 Geffrye Street, London E2 8HZ; tel +44 (0)20 7613 2967