by Gareth Groves
The St John-isation of the UK dining scene is well documented. Where once Fergus Henderson ploughed a lone furrow of pigs heads and bone marrow, now those dishes appear on menus across the land. The gospel of Proper British Food has spread far and wide - and the world is a better place for it.
This week I have eaten at two places that implement the St John idea of simple, gutsy, unpretentious food very well indeed. Oddly, both are called Magdalen.
The menus at The Magdalen Arms in Oxford and Magdalen in London Bridge were eerily similiar. Ballotine of foie gras, crab and toast, fish stew and prunes and armagnac appeared on both. As did a number of dishes ‘for two’. I love this current dining fad. Some dishes are much better scaled up to feed multiple diners than slimmed down to suit the needs of the solo diner. A whole roast chicken is always going to deliver more pleasure than a lonely supreme.
In Oxford, we shared a huge hunk of slow cooked lamb neck with just some creamy, garlicky dauphinoise and cabbage on the side. It came with large but unnecessary carving devices; the meat fell off the bone at the merest touch. The dish reminded me of a similiar one I had eaten a few years back at, yes, St John. That time at their Bread and Wine outpost. On a nearby table four strapping chaps were making short work of a whole shank of boar that was billed as being large enough for six.
It wasn’t all about the pleasures of the flesh, however. Our dining companion devoured a beautiful Pernod-scented stew of skate, mussels and hake. A ray of Mediterranean sunshine on a freezing English night.
Back in London at the other Magdalen, the dishes for two comprised a beef pie with a suet crust and a slab of roast sirloin. This time we went for solo dishes. Mrs G won as usual: potted crab (pictured at the top) followed by hare with pickled damsons. My deep fried pigs head – wobbly, meaty, savoury croquettes – and braised rabbit leg with white bean and chorizo were not far behind.
And the wine? Both Magdalens have very decent lists and both are happily fond of the 375ml carafe. In Oxford we drank carafes of a rather bland Fiano and a sweet, jammy Douro red. In London, we traded up: bottles of a lemony-fresh Chignin from Savoie and a superb Cotes du Rhone Charvin 2006. The latter was perfect snowy weather wine: warming, rustic and spicy.
Two eateries, one name and a very similiar concept. What’s the difference? Oxford’s Magdalen Arms is definitely a pub that does food. It even has a bar billiards table (reason enough for a visit in my book). The tables are uncovered, the bar buzzy and ale is important as wine. The food reflects this. The focus is on flavour and fun more than presentation.
Magdalen in London Bridge is definitely a restaurant with its white tablecloths and Riedel glasses. The food is more classically presented and structured – and the prices a touch higher.
Take your mates to Oxford for a slap up wild boar feast. Take your in-laws to London Bridge for a more refined experience. Neither will leave you maudlin.
The Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Road, Oxford OX4 1SJ – 2-course dinner for three with a couple of carafes of wine, £95
Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, London, SE1 2TU – 3-course dinner for four with two bottles of wine, £225
Photo taken from www.magdalenrestaurant.co.uk