Monday, 22 February 2016

Restaurant review: Marksman, Hackney

“Nice typeface” remarked Sartre, as we stepped in to the Marksman on a rain-lashed Valentine’s evening.

The Marksman’s logo is simply the word, in elegantly understated serif. (There’s a reason I write about food, not typography).

But it was the first clue that the whole Marksman experience would be full of small neat touches, barely perceptible, but just more proper because of it.

In the manner of many London gastropubs, the Marksman is a tale of two halves – downstairs boozer, upstairs dining room.

Although the downstairs looks like a classic East End pub, complete with Victorian oak, antique mirrors and anaglypta wallpaper, we were greeted by a knowledgeable, passionate barman who talked us through the wine list. Which you don’t get at The Carpenters Arms. 

In fact, there’s an easy coexistence here of the old and new. The old pub it was and the new restaurant it wants to be. 

It goes for the cooking – combining classic British recipes with a more modern finesse.

And it goes for the people who come here. Inevitably there were tables of gorgeous Hackney hipsters but there were also blokes having a pint and locals who had been in the area for a lot longer than Noel Fielding and Foxton’s.

After a swift sharpener our table was ready and we went upstairs to the dining room. Upstairs, it’s light, white and rather bright, thanks to long-lead lamps that illuminate each table. It feels like you’re sitting in a show kitchen in the displays bit of an Ikea.  There’s banquette seating mostly against walls, so it feels like you have your own little nook of the dining room.

And what of the food? Well, the first thing to say is, there is nothing that you don’t want to eat on the menu. Which secures your repeat visit for one thing.

The food is traditional British, given a refined twist.

There was a seiorusly moreish, and now semi-famous, beef and barley bun with horseradish cream. Like a British take on a char siu bao. A dish that pleased us for its entire life-cycle. From its alliterative name on the menu, right through to the final bite. The delightfully slightly-chewy soft bun gave way to a rich filling of braised beef and onions, which made Sartre exclaim that it smelt of his Nan’s cooking. In a good way.

We also made short work of two plump oysters with apple and shallots, perched on their own shells for towering impact and as fresh as if you were harbourside at Padstow.

After these snacky morsels, we plunged into our starters. We had the chicory, pickled pear, hazelnut and Harbourne blue cheese salad. This looked pretty as a picture and tasted light, sweet, creamy, textured. I am not very well-endowed in the sweet tooth department, and this could easily pass as a dessert for me – the hazelnut cream would have been delicious atop an apple pie.

The potted pork, pickled carrots and sorrel was my least favourite dish of the night. Succulent and soft on a crispy bit of toast, it was fine, but would have been better for a little more seasoning.

The Arbroath smokie and potato rissoles were a great wallop of peaty smokiness, like a tumbler of Laphroaig in a crispy potato ball. Delicious.

And the Hereford rump, beetroot and horseradish brought us to our knees. The beef was incredibly soft and flavoursome, and almost gamey. It was delicious with the fried potatoes and burnt onion mayonnaise side dish – two great planks of crunchy layered potato.

We were full. But we had heard that the brown butter and honey tart is legend. So we decided to share one and afterwards, bitterly regretted our frugality. We could have easily seen off two of them. This tart is a feat of patisserie prowess that makes me grateful for and resentful towards its creator in equal measure. Never will my pastry look and eat like that, not if I spent the next two years of my life making a tart a day.  There’s a well-balanced, sweet custard that in texture is somewhere better a ganache and a set crème caramel lying, queen-bee like, in a rich brown, crispy pastry.

Coffees and whiskies were taken, before we repaired downstairs to the bar to have a very reasonably priced Negroni (£8) while we waited for our Uber.

At just over £100 for the two of us, a couple of glasses of wine, coffee and a whisky, it’s remarkable value. This might change once the Michelin judges pay a visit. So go soon. And honestly, go when it’s more expensive too. Because it’s worth it.

Marksman is just glorious cooking. A menu packed to the gunnels with things you want to eat, skillfully executed, served with charm, in an inviting kitchen-cum-dining room above a pub.