Since opening Venetian-inspired, small plate-serving Polpo on Beak Street in 2009, Russell Norman has become a big name on London’s restaurant scene. He spearheaded the trend for no-reservations restaurants, and via venues such as Spuntino and Mishkin’s has pretty much defined what a ‘cool’ restaurant looks like. It’s no surprise, then, that his latest opening is big news. What makes it even bigger news is the form it takes: a pub in one of London’s most tourist-filled areas.
Along with business partner Richard Beatty, Norman has bought the iconic Marquis of Granby pub at Cambridge Circus and transformed it into Ape & Bird, which he describes as ‘a pub for people who don’t like pubs’. Wait, don’t stop reading yet; we love pubs as much as you do, but it sounds like he may be onto something. The idea is to create a pub with good beer, good food and good service in a part of London where at least the second two of those three things are very often lacking. Nice.
Despite looking the part from outside, there’s little of the boozer about Ape & Bird’s interior. There’s a grand bar (familiar to those who frequented the Marquis), but there’s none of the cosiness that a pub requires. A short paper menu that leads with a scotch egg momentarily gives the impression of a proper pub, but at around £12 to £14 for mains, £7 each for starters and puds, and a steep £5 for each of the sides, food here is firmly in the realms of gastropub rather than boozer — not that it’s at all unreasonable given the location.
The scotch egg is made using the shredded meat from a pigs trotter, and the result is unctuously, meltingly soft, salty and deliciously intense; a bright orange, gooey yolk and accompanying shoestring celeriac fries seals the deal, though there’s quite a lot of them for a starter. It gets things off to an indulgent start, but our other order of penny buns, squash & roasted garlic swiftly redresses the balance. The autumnal salad is light on the mushrooms which are listed as the first ingredient and heavy on bland chunks of squash which haven’t been cooked enough so as to reach the sweet stage. It feels worthy and far too healthy for anything we’re tempted to eat in a pub.
A main of mutton mince and dumplings reverts to being rich, hearty and resolutely British, but is pipped to the post by a cauliflower cheese side that is especially thick and creamy, and lifted by the addition of leeks into the mix. We found a lot of love for the cheeseburger that was liberally coated in gooey plastic cheese; crisp, refreshing iceberg lettuce; and a generous amount of gherkin. The patties themselves tasted underseasoned and slightly dry, though: perhaps the new kitchen is yet to get itself fully in gear. The beer selection includes Kernel, Meantime and Hackney breweries, so there’s no shortage of London liquid to wash things down.
Ape & Bird’s name is supposed to represent what it’s all about, apes being strong and intelligent while birds are delicate and beautiful; we’d suggest The Jack of All Trades might be more appropriate. It serves food that is very good but not incredible; the beer list is interesting but not extensive; the atmosphere is buzzy but not that of a pub; and the service is friendly but clunky.
Ape & Bird is a welcome addition to central London’s dining options, but it’s nothing revolutionary at all. It is brand new, though, so maybe it will improve with age like many a historic London pub before it.
Ape & Bird is at 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2H 8HJ.
Disclaimer: We review anonymously and pay for all our meals/drinks.