Paradise by way of Kensal Green

19 Kilburn Lane, London, England, W10 4AE, United Kingdom

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Kensal Green, sandwiched between Harlesden, Willesden and Wormwood Scrubs, has been described as a lot of things over the years, but “paradise” is not usually the first word that springs to mind. Once noted mainly for its cemetery and the scene of the famous Crossman Trunk murder (in Ladysmith Road), it was notorious for its industrial scale crack cocaine dealing as recently as a decade ago. However in recent times the area has become gentrified, the drug gangs keep a lower profile and assorted celebrities have moved to the area. The pub name actually comes from the last line in a GK Chesterton poem in “The Flying Inn” that alludes to the local cemetery: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”.

The Paradise features in its main bar a large sculpture of an angel that looks as if it got lost on its way to the nearby cemetery. I have never regarded these angel statues in quite the same way ever since the Doctor Who episode “Blink”, but with plenty of people in the bar to look at it constantly, the angel appears to be biding its time for now. Back in the kitchen, head chef Cat Ashton used to work at Petersham Nurseries after training at Momo in Melbourne; she was apparently working in the kitchen tonight. The dining room is quite atmospheric, with chandeliers, candles and oil paintings on the wall – it reminded me of the kind of room you might see in a Victorian gothic horror movie, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It is a nice change from the mass-produced lookalike rooms that so many London restaurants seem to go for these days. This room definitely has a distinctive feel to it, though the overall effect is quite dark in a slightly mysterious, spooky way.

The wine list, starting at £18.50 and ranging up to a heady £450 for Haut Brion 1996 (whose current market value is £326), is unusually ambitious for a pub and has some particularly well-chosen labels, though the list on the website was rather different from the one that was presented to us tonight. Chateau Musar 2001 is a glorious vintage of a lovely wine that is listed at £60 and is very hard to find, but would cost you about £29 if you could track it down; sadly it was not available tonight. The superb Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2003 at £120 is not marked up too badly from its retail price of £85, and Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve 2012 is a very drinkable offering at £40 compared to a shop price of £15.

Sometimes you can get a sense of how a meal may go by the early signs. As we entered the dining room we gave our reservation name and the manager that greeted us sidled over to his computer, looked, looked some more and then wandered off without a word. Eventually he returned, and after a time led us over to a table in the far from full dining room. He finally brought one menu, but not the two that we might have hoped for. At this point it seemed we might be in for a long night, and so we were. We ordered a bottle of wine, and the same manager poured out two full glasses and walked off; I have limited expectations about wine service in pubs, but even in this situation it is normal to check with the customer whether the wine is OK. As it happens it was, so we waited to place our order, and then waited yet more as the staff paid great attention to the computer and each other, but little to the dining room. Eventually we were able to order food, and a seemingly interminable time passed as we anticipated the arrival of the starters, more in hope than expectation. After a lengthy interval I asked whether they had any bread (there were side plates on the table) and eventually we were brought a small piece of unevenly cooked white toast. At this point the evening looked as if it could turn into the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot”, but finally the kitchen cranked into action and our starters arrived. 

Quail was baked in flatbread and served with chickpeas, spinach and whipped feta. It was harmless enough, but strongly resembled the kind of wrap you might get in a sandwich bar. The quail was minced up and did not have much flavour and the flatbread was bit floury; the chickpeas were reasonably tender but seasoning was very light (11/20). Raw artichoke and hazelnut salad with Parmesan was accompanied by a large piece of fried brik pastry notionally flavoured with rosemary and mascarpone. Usually brik pastry is used as a container for other ingredients, but here it was on its own and was a garnish. The hazelnuts were decent, the artichoke reasonable, but the dry pastry did not contribute to a well-balanced salad, and by contrast with the quail it was very salty, even to my taste (barely 11/20).

Seared tuna came with avocado salad and tahini yoghurt. This was a little better, the tuna pleasant enough, the avocado ripe, though something acidic would have created more balance in the dish (12/20). Guinea fowl was notionally stuffed with nduja and served with a salad of winter fennel and saffron potato, olives, almonds and yoghurt. The bird was competently cooked, the nduja (spreadable spicy salami) distinctly muted in its flavour, the fennel pleasant and the potato salad decent, though you would be hard-pressed to detect the saffron (12/20).

Ginger pavlova with passion fruit curd came with blood orange, pistachio and crème fraiche. This assembly of ingredients worked well enough, and the meringue did taste a little of ginger, though more passion fruit would have been an improvement (11/20). Date pudding with orange butterscotch and vanilla ice cream was distinctly dense, and the ice cream seemed to have only a passing acquaintance with vanilla (11/20).

Coffee was from a supplier called Matthew Algie and was very good – rich and with pleasing acidity; to be honest it was the best element of the meal by a wide margin. The bill came to £71 a head with a decent but hardly excessive bottle of wine. If you ordered three courses and coffee and shared a modest bottle of wine a typical cost per head all in would still be around £65. The service that we encountered from what I assume was an acting manager was of almost Fawlty Towers Manuel-like ineptitude, though an Italian waitress that we later encountered was very pleasant and redeemed things somewhat. She at least recalled who had ordered which main course, which was more than could be said for the waiter that brought dessert. I realize that this is a pub and not The Ritz, and I have limited expectations of service in a casual environment like this. I really just want someone to greet us pleasantly when we walk in, take our order and deliver it to the table in a reasonable time frame. Even this seemed well beyond the capabilities of everyone we encountered with the honourable but solitary exception of the Italian waitress. At £71 a head, though, I would also hope for a slice or two of decent bread and food that was of a level better than I can prepare easily at home. This evening was all the more disappointing since the meal we had here under the previous chef was excellent, and the overall experience a world apart from what was delivered tonight, despite this being a much quieter evening than our prior visit. Paradise seemed distinctly lost tonight. 

Further reviews: 19th Feb 2011

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