Monday 23 November 2009 7:00 pm

An East End gastropub on the up

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The Princess of Shoreditch
76 Paul Street EC2A 4NE,
Tel: 020 7729 9270

Cost per person without wine: £34

THE NEWLY revamped Princess of Shoreditch describes itself as a “gastropub and restaurant”, which might be seen as having your cake and eating it, but the owners have grand ideas. In the bar downstairs you can get souped-up pub grub at souped-up prices (a tenner for a pie, £13.50 for a lamb chop), but you can’t reserve. You can in the upstairs dining room, however, which has a smarter atmosphere, and is reached via an elegant, iron spiral staircase. The tables have crisp white cloths to emphasize that you are no longer in a pub – even though you are – and the menu has even more elevated prices.

Sitting on a quiet corner just off the main Old Street drag, there’s been a pub on the site since the 18th century, and it remains a rather lovely place to visit. The redesign has given it a suitably distinguished feel, with chic grey/green walls, low lighting, and a cosy ambience. You can get your pint of ale (from independent local breweries, including one offering something called Side Pocket for a Toad) in a cheery beer jug. As a place out east to go for a winter pint, it’s a winner.

As a place out east to head for a good meal, it’s okay, though the dining room never really feels like more than the upstairs room of a pub, whatever the proprietors’ aspirations. You still have to go downstairs and wade through packs of drinkers if you want to use the loo, after all. But I like it anyway – it’s a chattery, buzzy place when we visit on a Friday night, full of Shoreditch trendies packed in snugly and overlooked by black-and-white photos of music hall madams.

The menu is English seasonal with the odd Gallic twist, and has some tempting combinations. It veers somewhat on the fussy side though – reductions, jus and dressings are 10-a-penny – and it’s too expensive, with mains averaging £15.50.

I’m a sucker for anything with tarragon in it, and a rabbit and tarragon terrine was bursting with the stuff – it was a sweet, satisfying start to my meal, and rather pretty too. My friend had a cluster of medium-sized scallops with some tiny wild mushrooms nestled between them, drizzled with a creamy sauce that was a bit salty.

For mains, I went for pan-fried monkfish with crushed potatoes, leek and truffle sauce and of course a jus. It was rather good – the fish was meaty but just tender enough, and the sauce luscious. My friend chose a three-way duck dish – breast, confit leg and foie gras, with honey salsify and an orange jus – that was fine, if a little lukewarm. We asked for some mashed potato on the side, and it arrived sculpted into a smooth, rugby ball-shaped quenelle. It looked like a shaved baked potato and summed up the general sense of over-doing things, as did the presence on the dessert list of “rosemary creme brulee” – really, there are places to mess with creme brulee and a pub isn’t one of them.

Nevertheless, my chocolate fondant did what a fondant should, and the English cheeseboard ticked my pal’s boxes.

It’s not the refined dining experience the prices and menu flourishes suggest, but it’s certainly not bad, and the place has an easy charm helped by the attentive, friendly service. One thing that doesn’t help, however, is the failure of the crockery and cutlery to get on with one another. Flat plates are not the done thing these days, but our heavy-handled knives and forks insisted on sliding down the sides of the bowl-shaped plates any time we put them down. It may seem minor, but you feel a little silly having to wipe jus off your knife handle every time you reach for your glass of wine.

Still, this is a convivial gastropub, and deserves to re-establish this historic venue’s place in the Shoreditch mix. It will hopefully draw a City crowd east as well – particularly those who get bonuses.

It’s a little too pricey, but this is a smart, superior gastropub in the East End.