Wednesday 24 October 2012

The Earl of Essex

           Comfortably sat a few hundred yards from Angel tube station, in the type of quiet, Georgian townhouse lined street that would give an estate agent wet dreams, is a welcoming and charming place that will make people want to go out drinking on a Monday again. This area is one of London’s great pub neighbourhoods – not only does alcohol soaked Upper Street loom to the west, but the Island Queen, Duke of Cambridge and Wenlock Arms all hug the same stretch of canal – but it has just been massively improved. The latest in a succession of revamped Islington pubs, The Earl of Essex does not conform to the increasingly predictable gastro pub model which has taken hold of so many establishments on and around Upper Street. Instead we are presented with something more committed, personal, and much more fun.  

          On a cold October evening, the steamed windows and hum of elated Friday night banter is about as attractive and welcoming as it is possible to be. Cramped but cosy, the central island bar buzzes with activity, staff occasionally pausing for breath to describe the characteristics of a wheat beer or recommending a lager. One wall is dominated with a huge board highlighting the beers on tap – eleven kegs and five or so on cask, with one or two ciders. Prices are clear, simple and unapologetic, so if you want a full pint of the good stuff you will have to pay for it. Three or four local beers (Camden Town, Crate) stood alongside some unusual names (XT) but also a few big hitting breweries – Marble, Magic Rock, Sierra Nevada. Best in show was Fubar pale ale by Tiny Rebel, which was incredibly fresh, citrusy, bitter and delicious, a Punk IPA wannabe that may be better than the original.
      Menus on the bar show that thirds are also available, and that there are plenty of decent wines to choose from in addition to the bottled beer list, which is short and pricey but also pretty irresistible. Dominated by sought-after American and Belgian breweries, bottles are both exciting and expensive (Clown Shoes IPA’s £15, Brooklyn EIPA £5) although this didn’t seem to put off the admittedly affluent local crowd. Also worth noting is the very decent food, not just big plates of bar food but a proper menu with thoughtful dishes, all with beer matching recommendations. This can sometimes drive the price of a meal up steeply, but the keen pricing of the dishes means one can afford to indulge - £12 for a steak and chips, deserts at £4. A very decent burger and a forgivably over sauced, overly sweet pulled pork sandwich were served with fantastic chips, the service swift and happily not included on the bill (we were sat at the bar).

       It is a genuine compliment to say that this bar feels like it has been lifted from a quiet neighbourhood in New York or Chicago. The colossal beer board, the robust and informal food, a keg and pale ale prioritised beer list, and the feel that this isn’t somewhere to start the night before moving on to louder, shinier places, but somewhere to see it through. You only need to check out the website of The Earl of Essex to realise the people behind it are beer fanatics, but given the mixed bag of quality London breweries are currently serving up, the news that a small brewery will be opening downstairs in November is slightly worrying. Hopefully they can give the same attention to detail to this as the pub they have created, which is a standout addition to an increasingly competitive market.  

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