I’ll not lie to you; big cities confuse the shit out of me. Despite New York being all straight up and down and side to side, it would be as well to blindfold me and spin me round a few times rather than attempt to orientate me by advising I’m on the South East corner of W14th St at 7th Ave. I find the way London boroughs overlap equally unhelpful. My best friend just moved to Hackney, Homerton AND Lower Clapton. Try to establish exactly if the recently refurbished Canton Arms is in Stockwell or Vauxhall and you may just find that it’s in both. Having emerged from Vauxhall overground into warm sunshine, I tossed a few blades of grass into the gently prevailing breeze, squinted after them as they floated away, and then headed off in the opposite direction.
Coming at the pub from either end of South Lambeth Road is unlikely to set your pulse racing. Therein, while its aesthetic impact has a slow burn, lies the ultimately pleasant surprise. To call the improvements sympathetic is to say that there don’t appear to have been many. That said, and given where we are, such a deliberate exercise in simple restraint may just qualify as a stroke of genius. By retaining the flaws, the new guv’nors of this towering, street-corner ‘sairf-Landon’ session boozer have hung on to its regulars. Not only that, with her experience at The Eagle in Farringdon and drawing on the table/plate sharing premise of tried and tested gastro-institutions ( Waterloo’s Anchor and Hope and Holborn’s Great Queen Street), chef Trish Hilferty’s reinvention of the Canton Arms’ food offer has stealthily extended its scope far beyond local builders and businessmen.
Alongside a lick of paint the artfully written content of the blackboards is the first clue there might be more to this place than there first appears. Toasties are a speciality bar snack and are available, old-school, with baked beans or, if you’re open, haggis or foie gras (Chip butties go for £1.50). The water-tight main menu is likewise approachable and cosmopolitan. Wild black bream with tapenade and creme fraiche looks cracking at an arbitrarily arrived at £12.20, and Loin of Old Sport pork with apple sauce and watercress (£14) just about had me before we were alerted to the sharing specials on the wall above us. Seven hour neck of Salt Marsh lamb with butterbeans served four, (and then some, as it turned out), for £48. We didn’t need asking twice. One of those please, two sides of Cornish news, two of greens (£2.50 each) and a bottle of Minervois (£22)…, and another Betty Stoggs (Skinners, 4% and drinking a treat) if you would. And some olives – if this bastard’s going to take seven hours I’m gonna need something to try to convince my stomach my throat hasn’t been cut. I’m being obtuse now, of course. But if I didn’t begin to demonstrate how even the retrospective prospect of slow-cooked meat and red wine still inclines me to show off about having ordered it I wouldn’t be doing justice to what a nice time I had.
We didn’t need pudding but ordered cheese anyway (£7.20), and to save Smethers the embarrassment of animated anaphylaxis, we opted not for the recommended Chocolate and hazelnut cake but for an unusually free-form Buttermilk pudding with strawberries and (excellent) shortbread (£5). Which was nice. And light.
In terms of an experience the Canton Arms is a real grower. The nuances of its execution register gradually and lie more in what the owners have opted not to do. Some places feel misjudged. Some spend money in the wrong areas or appear to run out of it. I genuinely think the powers that be here chose not to spend it; what you see is what you get and it assumes nothing. The restaurant staff in particular were as beguiling and relaxed as our surroundings. The guy running the show – I’d call him the maitre d’ if it befitted him in any way except in regard to the authority with which he held the floor – was possessed of the kind of enviable calm that puts everyone else at ease. The incorporation of slow-cooked specials, whilst they’re brilliant sharing dishes, lends added appeal in that their preparation time dictates once they’re gone they’re gone (we nabbed the last neck but one); the kitchen can sell through on product in the healthiest possible way and customers will resolve to be quicker off the mark next time. It is, as I’m want to say whenever the package is as much the sum of all its parts, all deadly.
The only down-side to the evening was the terrifying image of me captured on C’s iPhone that, via an ingenious ‘app’, showed just what I would look like if I was a good 100lb heavier. Awful, is how I’d look (and I’m relieved to say it’s yet to appear on ‘Facey-B’). Still, a timely reminder that the perils of over-egging the pub/restaurant pudding are very real, and every other site-visit paid from here on in should probably be tempered by some exercise and a bit of vitamin c. I might just, therefore, walk upstairs to eat this orange.
Smethers, C, Priesty. An absolute pleasure. See you soon xx