Someone waking up from a 40 year coma probably wouldn’t recognise pubs today. Starting with Farringdon’s The Eagle in the 1990s (which technically remains the truest expression of the ‘gastropub’, with pub and kitchen still intertwined), dining pubs are now not only ubiquitous but becoming increasingly gentrified. Some don’t even seem like pubs at all (exhibit A: The Angel at Hetton) and maybe the term ‘gastropub’ is a bit passé (I never really liked it anyway – reminds me too much of gastroenteritis).
Whatever the nomenclature, pubs with separate dining offerings are very much the zeitgeisty choice for operators right now. Perhaps as a natural by-product of competition, recent standards have also been very high, though the value for the experience is sometimes questionable. The lobster and monkfish pie at The Pelican is phenomenal but one has to shout over dinner to compete with the hubbub of the Nottinghillerati. Meanwhile, the Mount Street Restaurant above The Audley is apparently a favourite of King Charles III and the Queen Consort; the artwork is wonderful there, the food fine, but the prices are extortionate. Our monarch may not baulk at paying £48 for a mediocre rib eye steak (to the extent he’s really paying) but for us ordinary mortals you can get more bang for your buck elsewhere – even in Mayfair.
Not far away, The Barley Mow by posh pub group Cubitt House is an altogether fairer offering. What used to be a Greene King dive is now a gleamingly lovely pub run by Lara Rogers (daughter of legendary publican Oisin Rogers). Like all these pubs there’s a natural split between a boisterous boozer downstairs and a sedate restaurant upstairs; in order to get to the latter one must negotiate the three-deep queues at the bar but it’s worth the obstacle course.
In the main dining room there are deep blue banquettes, tablecloths and French windows that open inwards (as they should). Next to this, the former loos have been converted into an intimate private dining room which feels like a louche boudoir, perhaps more suited to illicit trysts than Powerpoint presentations. Both benefit from natural light during the day and in the evening dim mood lighting makes for an immediately relaxing ambience.
The Barley Mow might have just struck that beautiful sweet spot in the modern dining pub
Sitting down with a Negroni (served promptly), the menu and wine list were both an impressive read. The wine selection comes close to The Guinea Grill’s: old school, punchy in places, but generally reasonable with half bottle options too.
As for the food, Cubitt House has assembled an A-team, with Ben Tish (ex-The Game Bird and Norma) directing the overall vision for the company and head chef Chris Fordham-Smith on the stoves. British classics seem to be the culinary bedrock here but with nods to France.
After comforting snacks of whipped smoked cod’s roe and brown crab rarebit, the meal proper began with soused mackerel. This fish wouldn’t normally be my first choice (I’m still in therapy for the “Torched Mackerel Years”, around 2017-2019), but the flavours and textures here were tantalisingly impressive. In a single plate there was the tingly sharpness of the pickling around the oily mackerel, whilst an ensemble of fennel, dill and cucumber in crème fraîche was a symphony of aniseed. It was an excellent introduction with a cheeky Vinho Verde to go with it.
For mains, the Native Breed beef pie was tempting, but the roast of the day at £36 seemed an obvious choice. After all, why should roasts be limited to Sundays? Offering them all week round is only proper and correct. On this occasion, pork belly and crackling were sensitively cooked with a silver boat of Madeira gravy which, unless my glass of Pinot Noir deceived my palate, seemed to have gentle backnotes of apple to complement the pork. On the side, greens wallowed in butter whilst the gratin dauphinois was just kissed by anchovy – its inherent saltiness had been advertised as some sort of a warning but was as playfully subtle as the Mona Lisa’s smile.
But amongst all this loveliness there had to be a bad apple. I’m sorry to find fault but the Westcombe curd aligot was subpar. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by Littlefrench in Bristol where the aligot is silkily sublime; where it’s so voluptuous that to film its cheesy elasticity on your phone is probably a capital offence in certain puritanical countries. Sadly, at The Barley Mow, they dropped the ball here, serving something stodgy like a supermarket’s microwaveable mash. The brown butter madeleines later on were also slightly overdone. I hope these comments are accepted as tough love as I otherwise adore this place.
Despite a couple of minor misses, it’s clear this is a highly competent kitchen and the food is a joy to eat. Nothing exemplified that more than the sticky toffee pudding, bathed in salted caramel sauce with Ivy House clotted cream. It was as decadent as it should be. And it’s always good to finish a dining experience on a high.
The final bill was unsurprisingly around the £100 mark but still comfortably less than the Mount Street Restaurant at The Audley. (To be clear, I don’t have a personal vendetta against The Audley but it was interesting to overhear the neighbouring table say “this is much better value than The Audley isn’t it?” – perhaps they had some sort of telepathic Shazam and detected my thoughts but I take that as vindication.)
The Barley Mow might have just struck that beautiful sweet spot in the modern dining pub: a bouquet garni of comfort, flavour and – importantly for Mayfair – value.
82 Duke Street
by J A Smith