Fur and Feathers | Polpo At The Ape & Bird, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8HJ
Russell Norman and Richard Beatty opening a pub was music to our ears. Especially as it’s in an area that is crying out for a decent public house. The Ape & Bird is the latest addition to the Polpo/Spuntino/Mishkin’s empire, and it is truly lovely. A three-storey Victorian building on Cambridge Circus that was previously the Marquis of Granby. They have even knocked though to some offices next door to create more space totalling 5000 square feet. On the first preview night on which we visited it was absolutely rammed, so a little hard to get a proper feel of the space.
There are beautiful iron chandeliers, apparently inspired by Balham underground and light shades that appear to float gently over the bar counter like little UFOs. Everywhere you turn candles flicker and fairy lights curl around the windows. As per usual, Russell has hunted high and low for reclaimed tiles and fittings. Where we might go as far as a flea market in Brighton or Whitstable for something unusual, he heads to New York. Reassuring hints of the previous restaurants are there, a flash of enamel cookware and brown paper place mats. We had a peak upstairs at yet another room, this time an intimate dining room with a large piece of artwork by Neal Fox (no, not Dr Fox) taking up the majority of the back wall.
We perched at one of the two bars to eat, this counter dining felt a little like our beloved Spuntino. We all went for beer, this is a pub after all… Choices include Hackney Golden Ale, Camden Pale, Dark Star, Anchor Steam, Moretti and Newcastle Brown Ale. The menu has a few pub classics but mostly typically quirky Tom Oldroyd dishes (the Polpo group’s chef director). Working alongside Tom is head chef Russell Oxtoby, previously of The Swan and The Globe. Oh, and they’ve recruited a great general manager in Eloise de Fine from Spuntino.
I went for a starter of Penny buns, squash, salsify and roasted garlic £7, it wasn’t what I expected when it arrived, a most odd-looking dish, possibly one that needs more light whist eating so you can see what’s what. We had to Google ‘penny buns’ – wonder how many pub goers are going to expect bread (they’re a mushroom). After later undertaking an image search I discovered their heads do have a remarkable resemblance to a glazed burger bap.
Ade’s Pig trotter scotch egg £7 was heaven – succulent juicy meat and yolk cooked just right. The wavy thin celeriac chips a lighter alternative to shoestring fries. A starter of a fine Rabbit terrine with pickled carrots £9 was devoured by our friend and regular dining companion. He couldn’t resist getting a steak for a tenner (this was a discounted preview night remember). Rib eye steak and chips with béarnaise sauce £20, cooked exactly as he requested – beautifully medium rare silky soft meat. They were proper chips too – the flat wide ones you only find in pubs and cafés. Although he wasn’t too sure, judging from when he said ‘most places do something a bit special with chips today don’t they?’ Meanwhile, Ade’s Chicken leek and mushroom pie £11 was so loved he scraped every trace of pastry off the empty dish. His chips were special – Truffled cheesy fries £5. Real cheese melted over French fries, the truffle not too overpowering as it can be.
I went for proper British pub grub – Cumberland sausage and mash £12. Good sized bangers with a silky mash that defeated me as I was wrongly lined my stomach with ale. Plus I possibly overdid it with a side of Fried sprouts, Old Ford and bacon £5. I dislike sprouts usually and I only eat them on 25th December in order to feel Christmassy. I’d heard good things about a similar dish of theirs and I wasn’t disappointed, everything’s better with bacon, right? Even more alarming than enjoying sprouts, is discovering that cheese was amongst them and I didn’t even notice. Regular readers will know that I cannot eat the stuff in any form, which therefore pretty much ruins my life. I didn’t even notice the words ‘Old Ford’ until I wrote this, Googled it, and then following up by double-checking with Tom. Could this be the breakthrough I’ve been dreaming of, or a freak one-off?
Dessert just had to be done despite being so full that I had to undo a button on my jeans. Unfortunately the Custard tart £7 – the only light option that I had my eye on, was all gone. There was only one thing for it, the Banoffeebocker Glory £7, I’d spied this on Tom’s Twitter feed recently and it looked good. The plan was that the boys would help me out with it but they had their hands full with their own desserts. Ade’s Sticky date pudding with ice cream £7 was a hefty portion of gorgeous treacley moist cake with chunks of sweet date, easily enough for two, our friend’s Blackberry & apple crumble £7 had an excellent balance between sweet and tart with a great crumb.
Downstairs is what feels like a secret cocktail bar – a very dark little room with plush red leather banquettes, granny lamps and clumsy little wooden tables. This is the kind of place you lose track of time, we were down there for ages working our way through the cocktail list with lovingly-constructed delights, such as an Old Fashioned, Damson Sour, Cynar Gin Fizz and a Brown Sugar Flip all £8.
We have been eager to return for a second visit before writing this, so we could experience it properly after all the craziness had died down. Unfortunately due to hectic schedules this hasn’t been possible. In an ideal world we’d have been back more than once already, but this isn’t an ideal world. We feel so fond of the place already though, and that’s testament to the dedicated and hard-working staff (including a very hands-on Russell Norman) that are genuinely eager to please.
To us, Cambridge Circus is mostly just an area we try to get past as quick as we can on the way to Charing Cross station. But now it proudly boasts a pub that I would actually want to go to, and most importantly, one I would feel comfortable sat in alone if waiting for a friend. Prices are a little steep mind, perhaps we’ll try a bar snack such as a Sausage roll £5 or Pork pie and piccalilli £5 next time. And there will be a next time…
142 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8HJ
Telephone: 020 7836 3119
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10am-11.30pm Sun 12pm-10.30pm
Bookings taken for lunch but are not required for dinner.
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Nearest station: Leicester Square or Covent Garden