Cheap, imaginative and very tasty

Timothy Barber
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The Mall Tavern
71-31 Palace Gardens, W8 4RU
020 7229 3374

FOOD ****
Cost per person without wine: £23

IT once would have seemed an inauspicious outcome for the former executive chef of a highly-regarded London restaurant to wind up cooking – and waiting tables – in a pub. But these days pubs win Michelin stars – as Fulham’s Harwood Arms recently managed – and give talented young chefs like the Mall Tavern’s Jesse Dunford Wood an opportunity to plant their flag.

In the case of Dunford Wood – who used to oversee the cooking at the National Gallery’s award-winning National Dining Rooms and has worked with such chefly luminaries as Mark Hix, Michael Caines and Rowley Leigh – that flag would probably be a collision of Union Jack and Jolly Roger. Old-fashioned whimsy mixed with cheeky subversion marks out both his food and Dunford Wood himself, a skinny figure who can be found strolling around the pub sporting a punk t-shirt/panama hat combo. While his team takes care of the cooking, he prefers to play the garrulous host, laying out the welcome to his guests. The Mall Tavern’s that kind of convivial place, and it’s rather a find.

The management is behind a couple of other well-regarded gastros, The Stag in Hampstead and The Regent in Kensal Green. Nestled round the corner from Notting Hill station off Kensington Church Street, The Mall Tavern follows the usual formula of rickety furniture, snug comfort and low lighting. At the long pub bar you’ll get a pint of bubbly ale (Old Hooky) served in a beer jug; in the dining room, candles flicker and old bay windows curve around in a homely manner.

It’s in the menu that the place steps it up a notch. Crucially, it’s very cheap, with starters that double as bar snacks averaging around £4 and mains around £12. It’s also fun. Dunford Wood has taken the Brit Revival cuisine blueprint – chops and steaks, pies and cheeses, potted this and mashed that – and stirred in a dose of school-dinner nostalgia and playful mischief while staying on the right side of quirky. Unfashionable dishes like coronation chicken, duck a l’orange and macaroni cheese lurk like a challenge, while pork crackling with apple sauce can be had as a starter – it couldn’t be further from Dunford Wood’s fine dining past if cup’o soup was on the menu. Which indeed it is.

Now one could accuse the chef of being arch, even flippant, with such a menu if there wasn’t finesse behind it too. There aren’t many London pubs – or restaurants, for that matter – that smoke their own fish, and it’s in such details and attentiveness that the culinary pedigree shows through. I started with a Cornish fish soup, served in a pretty clay pot, that was spicy, aromatic and deeply satisfying; accompanying it was a D.I.Y. crouton kit – dark slithers of fried French bread, grated cheese and a creamy mustard mayonnaise I could live off. My friend had Welsh lamb “scrumpets” out of curiosity – they turned out to look like fish fingers, containing soft, finely-minted strips of lamb instead of fish, crisply breaded and lying on a silky caper sauce. Rustic, eccentric and scrumptious – the name fits.

For my main course I couldn’t resist – and had no intention of doing so – cow pie. Desperate Dan would get on his knees and give thanks for this – big, melty chunks of beef in a gooey, sumptuous gravy. A piece of bone containing a peppery marrow stuffing propped up the dark, buttery pastry. My friend bravely went for chicken kiev, a discredited dish nowadays normally prefixed grimly with the word “mini” – it was plump, encrusted with crunchy breadcrumbs, and fell apart majestically as a river of herby garlic butter gushed out upon cutting. If the sole achievement of the Mall Tavern is to redeem chicken kiev, it will have been worth it.

There’s a rather splendid private dining room upstairs that seats up to 14 round an enormous feasting table, and even a chef’s table in the kitchen – ironic, bearing in mind the head chef is in the dining room. Wherever he is, at this place he’s doing a lot of things just right.