Keeping the flag flying for boozers

Timothy Barber
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The Surprise
6 Christchurch Terrace, W3 4AJ
Tel: 020 7351 6954


Cost per person without wine: £23

THE Surprise (named after a warship) is a pub in Chelsea and the latest project from Geronimo Inns, the company with a slew of beautiful gastropubs across London. So good is Geronimo at turning around old boozers that, in an environment where hard-up breweries and landlords – and in the case of Chiswick’s Devonshire Arms, super-chefs – are closing pubs by the score, Young’s saw fit to buy the company last year for £60m. Geronimo remains a separate entity within the Young’s operation, and the Surprise demonstrates how valuable it is.

A small, local place on a back street in the poshville enclave between the King’s Road and the river, it was closed for four years after falling on hard times.

Now it’s a lovely place in which to kick back. This being Chelsea, there’s some decorative razzmatazz in the form of eccentric modern artworks – a huge oil portrait of Frankenstein’s monster (Karloff era), for instance – plus the odd bit of funky wallpaper. On a weekend visit, the stools round the large, bare wooden bar were populated by well-lived locals sinking choice ales (served in handled mugs) into their beer guts. The sun gleamed through windows tinted with the original leaded glasswork.

There’s a cosy dining room upstairs that’s open on weekday evenings, but for Saturday lunch we were happy to be sat downstairs amid the hum of the bar.

For food, the pleasing Surprise formula is to re-imagine familiar, hearty gastropub fare in tapas form. Small-plate dining is the fashionable thing, but doing it with dishes like shepherds pie or pork belly is a nice spin, provided it’s done well.

It is. The menu, with around 30 dishes ranging in price from £2 to £6, is mouth-watering. Cockles and whelks, shepherd’s pie made with hogget shoulder, beans with tarragon butter, ham hock hash, devilled white bait – if ever a menu demanded return visits to work through everything, this is it.

Smoked eel on a salad of roasted beets, horseradish, bacon and croutons is nostalgic and smoky and densely flavoursome; a ramekin’s worth of Stinking Bishop macroni cheese can probably be smelled on the King’s Road, and is a gloopy, decadent wonder; a Scotch egg is utter perfection, sliced in half with the runny yolk spilling into a sweet, carefully made piccalilli; while a jar filled with a creamy avocado panna cotta, devon crab and tomato is an inspired, delicate blend of textures and tastes.

For pudding, “Eton tidy” is a charming idea charmingly executed: Eton mess elements – strawberries, raspberries, vanilla cream and meringue – come in separate portions that you can mess together yourself. A chocolate plate of ice cream, brownie and a shot of mousse is rich and special, and a custardy crème brulee with raspberries lurking inside is merry and memorable.

Another west London salvage job, the aforementioned Devonshire Arms, on a quiet street just off the Chiswick roundabout, is more of a work in progress. Once part of the Gordon Ramsay empire, it underperformed and was let go earlier this year. Its new proprietor is Nick Gibson, a congenial former banker who has managed a much-admired turnaround at the Draper’s Arms in Islington.

The Devonshire, which re-opened a couple of weeks ago, is now a stripped back place with bare floors, bare tables and khaki-green wooden wall panels.

The menu is well-considered, with nothing too complicated but little that’s run-of-the-mill – as it should be. I nipped along this weekend, and had unctuous, herby duck rillettes that spread beautifully on toast, and some nicely-cooked scallops that didn’t really go with a rather tart piccalilli.

Nice to see onglet steak on the menu – a cheap cut, but flavoursome (you can share a chateaubriand if you want posh steak), though chef needs to think again about the oily, gravy-like peppercorn sauce accompanying it. A huge skate wing, with parmesan, capers and preserved lemon was fresh and enlivening. The less said about a dried-out chocolate fondant the better.

Things are still getting in order at the Devonshire, and there’s plenty on the menu to suggest a keen culinary mind at work here. Good ale selection too.

The fine little beer garden was apparently unused by the previous regime, but it’s now open again. I raise my pint to that.