32 Canonbury Street, Islington, London, N1 2TB
A lot of my friends moan about how Islington has become a touristy hell in recent years, with many of its “original” residents fleeing to Stoke Newington or Crouch End. It certainly does seem to be full of pubs and wine bars, most of which are trendy enough but not exactly known for being relaxing or serving decent food. Thank god then, for The Marquess Tavern. Situated on a tree-lined side street off the Essex Road the small pub brightens up the corner like a proper local.
When I arrived the place was fairly empty, there were a few middle-aged couples but I found the atmosphere warm and welcoming. The French bar-man was particularly helpful without being overly flirty or annoying. The main dining area is a small light-filled area at the back of the pub with huge chalk boards proudly announcing classic seventies delicacies in the mode which seems to be de rigeur right now, you know things like sardines on toast and devilled lambs kidneys.
Anyway, I expected great things from this place both food and wine wise. Since it opened a couple of years ago it’s won the best gastropub of the year and Time Out voted it one of the top 10 pubs in the UK. It’s not hard to see why when so many items on the menu read like a gastronome’s delight with dishes like Braised Herdwick Lamb Shoulder with Lavender, Carrots & Minted New Potatoes (at £60 for 4 people) or potato and wild garlic soup. All the food is paired with a lovingly thought out beer and wine list including exotica like kelp beer, double chocolate stout and Duvel Plantane de la Marquise Chardonnay. The menu changes with seasonality, all the meat is free range and traditionally reared and all their fish is from sustainable sources. Surely all restaurants, let alone gastropubs should be like this? – It certainly shouldn’t just be another trend.
So with high expectations I ordered a starter of scallops with bacon and Matthew had the smoked sprats on toast. My scallops were greasy with pork fat and also slightly undercooked, which left me feeling nauseous. The smoked sprats were also pretty standard. They sounded more glamorous than they tasted and to be honest were a little on the elderly side. The pairing of smoked beer however was ingenious. Having never had smoked beer before I can safely say I am now hooked. Dark and slightly bitter, it was reminiscent of taking a swig from the wrong can at the right party.
For my main course I had the bubble and squeak with a poached egg and garlic oil which was bland despite the garlic oil and also soggy. The egg was nice but could have done with a bit of celery salt. Or something. Matthew said his steak was very good indeed but when I tried one of his chips they were clearly double fried, yet strangely tasteless and a very curious shade of orange. We decided to skip pudding in favour of some more smoked beer but sadly our East European waitress just smiled and nodded at us when we requested this, in a manner that clearly indicated she didn’t have the faintest clue what we were talking about.
Despite having a dud meal, I would still go back to the Marquess Tavern as I feel I caught either it or myself on a bad night. The Sunday lunch is apparently legendary and has a 2 week waiting list, so I would like to see how it compares to The Londesborough, my current favourite up the road. Also I would recommend it for the beer and wine selection alone. On this particular occasion it sadly failed to deliver for me. I really wanted to love this place, but came away with that disappointed feeling one often gets after being urged by lots of people to go and see an amazing film and then being let down after expecting way, way too much despite nothing really obvious being wrong.