Pub landlords occupy a unique niche in our collective cultural identity. From Al Murray to Tim Martin, from Guy Ritchie to Pat Butcher, there’s a near intangible thread pulling these opinionated, infuriating and downright ridiculous personalities together. The honour found behind the bar, the keys to the realm in hand, overlooking this rarefied social club where knights and paupers rub shoulders over piss-soaked peanuts and semi-soused storytelling.
JKS are very unlikely landlords. They are die-hard, Michelin-adored, serious restaurateurs who have backed a string of hits from Gymkhana to Flor and countless others. They don’t seem like your average suds-slingers; but then choosing a place called ‘Cadogan’, which evokes a distinctly Chelsea (read: posh) vibe, it isn’t exactly going to be your average pub.
To lead the kitchen, JKS have brought in Kitchen Table chef James Knappet, with Alex Harper (ex Harwood Arms) and Dominic Jacobs (of The Running Horse, Mayfair) rounding off this threesome in the middle of the Kings Road. Their menu is mostly pubby. Think scotch eggs, burgers, fried chicken, curry: it’s every classic dish from every classic boozer you could imagine, hauled in from the era before the word ‘gastro’ became an ubiquitious prefix. But this has been upscaled for Chelsea so you can also expect more refined plates such as oysters, roast turbot on the bone and mangalizta pork chop.
I’m not sure how I feel about the main space just yet. I like my pubs to have something best (if perhaps insensitively) described as “a bit naff”. I want there to be wonky, sun-faded pictures or an old curiosity cabinet full of dubious war medals bought for a tenner on eBay. A slight must in the air wouldn’t go amiss either – not the rank odour of 3 day old lager slowly humidifying into the atmosphere, but the scent of beams or a fireplace perhaps. Essentially, there are a few unmissable bullet points on the “real pub” checklist that The Cadogan Arms doesn’t quite deliver on. That’s not to say it’s as sterile as a hospital: the 50 shades of brown as you walk in and the stained glass and the lovely chandeliers all do their bits. It just feels rather too neat and tidy.
Décor aside though, the lack of traditional tavern atmosphere is possibly due to the quiet time of year. This visit is also at lunch, and indeed I’m on my larry. It can be lonesome, but it’s also really rather lovely what you pick up on when you dine solo. There’s a table from New York just a few down from me, planning their day ahead, early pioneers of that thing called ‘Travel’ we all forgot about these past 18 months. There’s a French businessman discussing what I believe to be both Brexit and the menu to his British boss. And another solo diner, who as I arrive at my table, is politely informing the waiter that the trifle is simply too big for her to finish.
These mini melodramas, these interactions are everything and nothing. They make up the wonder of life in a restaurant. It’s here, while reading the menu and eavesdropping, that I realise how much I’ve missed it all, and how much more of it there is out there, still to come.
I sound smug, arrogant even, as I make my order. Not because I intend to be but the waiter quite rightly warns me that ordering two starters (one of which is rather large) then a main course, might be a little much, leaving me in the same predicament as his last solo diner 10 minutes earlier. In fact he’s completely correct: my order of scotch egg, chicken liver parfait and chicken Kiev could have been enough for a less hungry couple, or even a trio of skinny Sloane Rangers. But I skipped breakfast, so doubling up is the order of the day.
The rich yolk of my scotch egg is a sort of pearlescent orange, yielding an unerringly pleasing texture. It’s served with a piccalilli so perfect it could have come straight from Fortnums ‘special reserve’ (a facility I’ve entirely made up and yet simultaneously believe exists to service the royal household with various pickles, condiments and sauces). I’ve eaten a few scotch eggs in my time but I can’t remember eating a better one than this.
The parfait is adorned with peach segments for a fruity hit and it’s not a bad dish at all, if a little difficult to understand. It’s essentially not a parfait but more like an incredibly dense chicken liver soup. That sounds rather horrendous I know, but bear with me. This is a less set, less viscous version, more like slowly melting velvety chicken liver ice-cream. It also happens to be exceptionally silky and carefully served with the perfect number of brioche slices (four, in case you were wondering).
With the afternoon sun creeping into my little corner of the dining room, I start to ponder who this pub is actually built for. On the surface, it seems too formal for the pub traditionalists and perhaps not formal enough for the Michelin chasers or the standard JKS fan base. Or maybe it’s designed precisely for them both; for the latter to enjoy on their day off from Michelin starred dining, and for the traditionalist too, when looking for a more special occasion.
My chicken Kiev arrives from my exceptionally charming waiter and it’s a heart-warming plate. Generous in spirit, this Kiev returns my soul to the Kievs of my childhood: an elevated, sauce-squirting main course of nostalgia, served with a creamy and fully-realised mash and a zingy pickled fennel salad.
Whilst it’s not a dish I’d usually plump for, the sherry trifle has been flouted all over town since opening, so I had to see if it was worth the buzz. It arrives as ornately constructed as the carvings around the sconces and chandeliers in the dining room itself. Sat upon a doily and sitting in an art deco style dessert coupe, this perfectly layered dish had very nearly all the right ingredients. It was, however, not to be. My disappointment that this didn’t quite work was so complete that I’m considering calling the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate as my sherry trifle didn’t contain a single discernible drop of sherry. The expectation of a warming, beautiful, boozy hit sadly faded into a languorous creamy texture. It missed that one crucial necessity, that livener which would have lifted this dish from a pleasant pud to a decadent dessert.
So it’s a posh pub, with a little bit of seriousness about the place. Whilst I wouldn’t have minded a bit more classic pub whimsy (possibly even some shenanigans wouldn’t go amiss), there is some seriously good cooking on display. It’s backed by a dream team of owner-operators and if I were you I’d seriously consider booking yourself in soon. But word to the wise, do bring an emergency snifter of sherry, you know just in case…
298 King's Road
by Mike Daw