The Newman Arms relaunched in July 2015 with new owner Mark Chatfield. The pub itself dates back to 1730, and was a haunt of George Orwell. He mentioned it in his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” and indirectly in “1984” as the probable basis for “The prole’s pub”. It featured briefly in the classic Michael Powell movie “Peeping Tom”. Heading the kitchen is Eryk Bautista, who most recently worked for a few months at Antidote in Soho, and before had spent two and a half years at La Petite Maison in Mayfair. There is an emphasis on the produce of Cornwall, with the upstairs wood-panelled dining room able to seat around 30 guests. Tables are tiny and closely packed, with the wooden floor and hard surfaces resulting in quite a noisy room.
The wine list, smartly designed by the knowledgeable Zeren Wilson, ranged in price from £18 to £54.50, with two-dozen bottles at a median price of £32. Refreshingly, the average mark-up to retail price was just 2.2 times, an absolute steal by the standards of central London these days, where mark-ups twice that level are all too common. Examples were Rousanne/Chardonnay Domaine Félines Jourdan Coteaux de Bessilles 2013 at £22 for a label that can be found in the high street for £10, ‘Acústic’ Vinyes Velles Nobles Bodegas Acústic Montsant 2012 at £37 compared to a shop price of £14, and Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2102 at a very fair £48 for a bottle that retails at £34. The menu was short, verging on abrupt: three starters, four mains and a solitary dessert (or cheese). Starters ranged in price from £5 - £7, mains £13 to £19 and the lone dessert was £6. Bread was bought in from The Flour Station, a good supplier.
A salad of tomatoes came with quinoa, Parmesan and soya vinaigrette. The good thing was that there was some flavour in the tomatoes where so often these days there is none. The quinoa sounded a nice idea but was almost entirely absent, and the vinaigrette slightly overpowered the cheese (barely 12/20). Mackerel was presented prettily with fermented gherkin and borage. However a fish with such a distinct flavour here managed to be bland and limp, the gherkin providing what flavour there was (11/20).
I quite liked roasted romanesco with cashew nuts, some pink peppercorns, and “old Ford and cider sauce” (goat cheese mixed with scrumpy). The romanesco was nicely cooked, but the peppercorns barely registered in flavour, though the cashew nuts provided a contrasting texture, and the sauce worked well with the earthiness of the romanesco (13/20).
Monkfish came with grilled fennel, smoked pink fir potatoes, anise hyssop (a type of mint) and olive sauce. I liked the potatoes but the fish, though cooked fairly well, seemed entirely lacking in seasoning. The anise taste came through but the olive sauce barely registered; the overall effect was surprisingly bland for a dish with potentially quite strong flavours (11/20).
One thing about offering a solitary dessert is that it is incumbent upon the chef to make it appealing to all, given the complete lack of choice. Yet I am guessing that not many condemned prisoners on their last night on earth ponder their options and then choose for their final meal “violet mousse”. I had some English cheese (Tunworth, Cardo and Stichelton) with oatcakes and grapes, which was fine.
Service was charming, the staff friendly and seemingly enthusiastic. The bill came to £31 a head without alcohol and with one cheese plate to share; if you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head for three courses and coffee might be around £50. The Newman Arms is quite likeable in many ways: the waiters were lovely, the pub has some history, prices are modest and the wine list is unusually good. Yet ultimately the success of a meal depends on the skill of the chefs, and the things I most enjoyed tonight were the bread and the cheese, the elements that the kitchen did not touch. When that happens it is not a ringing endorsement of the talent on display in the kitchen.