Comfort food: Radio Alice & The Canton Arms
There’s a brilliant review called Secrets inside Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Taken from her Spectator column, she reviews the modest Chelsea-Kensington-Fulham restaurant Beau Geste.
The 1963 review differs* from restaurant review columns you might read today. Most significantly, is that she visits Beau Geste on four or five occasions before committing pen to paper.
I have been thinking recently about go-to favourites within London. Those comfortable places where you feel at home, you can act how you want, and get food that you know will always be delicious. Places you have been to at least four or five times, so can actually put together an informed opinion. For all the tasting menus I love with nonsense pairings like fermented asparagus and pickled mushroom; a good stew, a good pizza, a good spaghetti alle vongole is more often than not what you really want.
In 2017, LA and I visited Radio Alice more than any other restaurant. The pizzeria, named after a pirate radio station, has sites in Hoxton & Clapham (though we only visited the latter). There have been three defining pizza moments in my life: my first, my first sourdough, and my first Radio Alice.
Radio Alice manage a perfectly crunchy outside and an unbelievably soft inside. I’d like to pretend that I’ve tried all of their toppings, but I haven’t. Nine times out of 10 (and that’s not rounding up, I’ve had their pizza at least that many times), I go for their Proscuitto di Parma (£12). Ham, burrata, mozzarella and orange oil. The most comforting pizza I’ve ever had. Go there, taste it, I defy you to dislike it. Whenever I am tired, or cannot be bothered to cook, or sad and in need of comfort food: this is what I want (with a bottle of any of their three house reds).
A mile and a half down the road is The Canton Arms. This is what you always want to be your local. If I was any other pub in London, I would be jealous of the Canton Arms. I’d be jealous that they have nailed being a gastropub.
The front half is the perfect pub. A handful of tables inside, and an equal number outside for smoky goodness. As well as the series of beers by the tap, they’ve got a brilliant wine list, a decent selection of scotch, and are one of the few pubs that can make a decent negroni or martini. The landlord and his staff are grumpy, as they should be. Clientele is a mix of lonesome drinkers propping up the bar, young couples, groups of friends and families at the weekends. A great place to drink whether you’re there for just the one, a shared bottle of red, or more of a session at the weekend.
Enter the backroom of the Canton, however, and you remember why you first discovered the place. The Canton Arms is owned by the same group that runs The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s The Magdalen Arms. That means a menu that marries British and French cuisine together in a post-St John world. Expect terrines, slowly braised offal, and the best game I’ve yet eaten in south London. At weekends, expect entire legs or haunches or or shoulders of meat to be served for three, or four, or five or six to share. Expect fish either cured or simply roasted with some seasonal veg. Every visit to the Canton has been exceptional (though it should be pointed out a few guests including LA have had a couple of misses amongst all the hits – such is the nature of repeat visits).
Finding a regular, a comforting regular, which you can go back to again and again is the middle-class dream. When I reread that Elizabeth David essay recently, I could relate to the joy she found in finding somewhere reliably comfortable. Where she could take new and old friends, family who are in town, or go to on those nights when you just can’t be bothered to cook. Where going out for dinner isn’t about the food you’re eating, it’s about the company that you’re with.
*(Where it doesn’t differ at all, is in the tutting and charming snobbery around wine). She writes, “M. Pigeon says ah yes, the wine was cold so he has permitted himself to warm it a little. He has been five years with the French navy, alors vous comprenez madame je connais les vins, moi. What he doesn’t connait is that I like my Beaujolais cold, straight from the cellar.”