I wasn't sure if I was going to write about The Culpeper, mainly because a friend of mine is a shareholder in the business and I wondered if I would be seen as biased or swayed by this. But then I remembered I can write what I bloody well like because this is my blog and I'm not such a simpleton that I can't form my own opinion. So, The Culpeper. Last year it was called The Princess Alice, and it was a fine old boozer with a foosball table and nothing much more remarkable than that. Oh, they also did a swing class in the sweaty room upstairs that you would have to edge past to get to the bathroom and hope that you don't get kicked in the crotch on the way by the oft-grumpy dancers.
The entire pub was gutted and refurbished to be transformed into The Culpeper. Gone is the dinginess and the low ceilings; the main room is bright and airy, lit with swinging lightbulbs. Banquettes in bold turquoise line the huge open windows, and a shiny chromed bar is the central focus.
Head Chef Sandy Jarvis, formerly of Terroirs has created a menu that is solid gastro-pub, with flashes of excitement. Nestled within the classics like pie and fish and chips are porkcorn, and anchovy butter.
Whole globe artichoke with spiced crab butter (£6) was a great example of a perfect starter. Easy to share, a little messy and not too filling, the crab butter was a lovely deviation from the usual vinaigrette. A salad of soft boiled egg with anchovies (£6.50) was well dressed with a tangy, parmesan sauce. The ingredients were obviously of top quality.
Deep fried pigs head (£6) elicited ooh's of delight from our gaggle of girls; a few golden, crisp spheres of spiced pork was accompanied with leaves dressed with a mustardy emulsion, a sliver of pickled walnut here and there to counteract the richness. Our token vegetarian enjoyed roasted vegetables with Israeli cous cous (£5) - the big type - and a splodge of spiced yoghurt on top.
Our mains were nothing short of hearty. An enormous pie (£14) with a golden puffed lid was packed full of creamy chicken, mushrooms and leek. I appreciated the dressed finely shaved cabbage and radish salad that came with it - one of my bug bears is a full priced main, but an incomplete meal that forces you to order the vegetable or carb component additionally. My own dish was an enormous pork chop (£15), thick and as big as my face, balanced on top of a lemony fennel salad. New potatoes, boiled and then roasted and tossed in mustard accompanied it, along with a herb-rich chimichurri sauce to pour over the chop. The pork was cooked to a rosy pink, leaving the meat juicy and the flavoursome fat crisp.
By the time we got to desserts eyelids were starting to droop and the toll of our gluttony was onset. I wished I hadn't finished my friend's pie, when our lone shared dessert of a chocolate brownie with salted caramel, honeycomb and creme fraiche (£6) came out. It was attacked with fervour and it was as good as it sounds.
For such a busy pub, service was swift and engaging. Our friend wrinkled her nose upon tasting the anchovy butter that comes with the bread (honestly, these vegetarians) and plain butter immediately appeared without prompt. Our waiter (or sommelier?) did well with the red wine drinkers in recommending a cloudy-ish, chilled Gamay which they loved; I had a slight tussle on the white wine front, but eventually talked him down to what was more mass affordable for a bunch of women who'd just been drinking beauty-parlour-house-white. Our ordered porkcorn never arrived - devastating, considering my love of both popcorn and pork - but when it was pointed out on the bill our waiter was so embarrassed he offered us a round of drinks on the house. We declined in favour of last tubes / trains / buses but it's the thought that counts.
I'm a big fan of The Culpeper; it's obviously strongly driven by food - they serve breakfast, lunch and during August you can also picnic on their rooftop, where they grow herbs and vegetables for the chef to use. Often pubs can lose the traditional pub drinkers aspect, but I've been for drinks, perched outside on a window ledge in the afternoon sun with scores of drinkers at the bar too and The Culpeper seemingly get the balance just right.
40 Commercial Street
(Tables are bookable for 6 or more)