I once wrote somewhere here that part of the process of reinventing a pub previously dead in the water might conceivably and justifiably involve changing its name. Contentious, as a statement of intent, but carry-offable if you’re cute. If you’re good and your predecessors were especially bad.
I never knew the King’s Arms off John Street before new owners came in and saw fit to call it The Lady Ottoline. Probably wouldn’t have cared to, either. But without disputing the relevance of the title to this part of town, or indeed that the new administration’s general practice would knock that of the old King’s caretakers’ into a cocked hat, the planning department’s apparent insistence that outward evidence of the old name be retained – the windows are embossed accordingly – I’m not sure I wouldn’t have left well alone here. As much as anything because as pub names go, The King’s Arms is a good one, and The Lady Ottoline is not. It’s rubbish.
The overhaul they’ve given it isn’t rubbish. It’s perfectly tasteful, even if its approach is identifiable among a million and one other overhauls affected lately. The back bar configuration in particular, in all its grey-ish wood grandeur, looks expensive and reflects an attitude toward providing a high quality offer. Smart, extendable tables are spaced artfully and ergonomically, the lighting is set to ambient, and the music to a playlist founded in the Forties. Which works in a building whose character charm remains well intact in spite of the work it’s had done.
Fingers and I arrived there early evening and signalled our intention to eat. Knowing full-well there’s a separate restaurant upstairs I was surprised, given the girl who’d met us was dressed differently to her colleagues and apparently in charge, not to have our dining options broken down beyond being told what time the kitchen opened. No matter, we ordered beers – the ales among which were moody – and set our stall out at a table at the far end of the room. The Bar Menu was brought and yielded an infinitely accessible, appetising-sounding selection of everything you’d expect from a good one, priced exactly as you’d hope if it was to be decent. We went balls out for the Burger. A juicy, 8oz bastard with plum chutney, foie gras and truffle mayonnaise. Two of. Great; sounded, and proved to be, exactly what we wanted.
Only then, though, when Fingers wondered out loud if we were required to re-locate upstairs to eat, did an in-earshot, suddenly over-attentive member of staff weigh in with the news that we might just be letting the best in life pass us by in settling for the Bar Menu, that there was a full a la carte card in operation on the first floor. Perhaps you’d have been better off advertising that before we’d chosen from the one menu you did decide to divulge, I thought, and represent the whole offer, rather than decide on our behalf that what was doing downstairs would see us right. The fact it absolutely did is neither here nor there. We could, for all they knew, have been a couple of proper high-rollers, ready to rinse 4 courses of their higher-end chow down with a couple of bottles of Domaine Mestre Michelot Meursault at £54.95 a pop. We weren’t, like, but, you know? At least give us the dime tour. Failing that, if there is a colour option on the burger, give us it. Not to is lazy, if the chef’s amenable – which, if he’s worth his salt he should be – and undoes an awful lot of the work I know the management have invested here to try, as I say, to lay the foundations of a good gastronomic experience. Afters fell similarly short of the mark. A (deliberately) Burnt Lemon Tart with Lemon Souffle and Raspberry Jelly just about gave value at £5.95, the Cheeses, at £2.50 a go across four, did not. At all.
On the subject of the Meursault – not that I gave it a second look; drinking fat, expensive whites like this to me is like drinking melted butter – the wine list at The Lady O is a real credit to the place. Presented in hard back, it remains approachable, offers great value and variety, interesting Old World and niche among New, and specifically a punchy, more than palatable Cotes du Rhone for about £26. Took care of an uncalled for, extra glass with my short-change cheese too.
Try as it might, The Lady Ottoline is one of those places, one would guess, that will never be seen by anyone who ever knew it before as anything other than the King’s Arms. Which is not to say that it isn’t a mostly successful shot at boozer re-birth. The shop-fit stinks of quality craftsmanship, the cooking is cracking on this low-key evidence and its wine list is a winner. The beer was lame, however, which will need addressing should it ever aspire to neighbourhood status AND that as a destination dining room. Over and above that, though, the wait staff – of whom I’d been primed to expect good things – will need to apply themselves a sight better to their theme than they did tonight before their rating as the latter is elevated beyond being just a decent alternative.
Bottoms up, Fingers. You’re golden, man. x
Photos courtesy of The Lady herself.