A good restaurant is sometimes one brilliant vision, or the expert execution of a number of good ideas. But sometimes it is a coming together, and it just feels like fate.
And such it is with the Quality Chop House, a confluence of three people, a venue, some attached premises and a set of ideas nurtured separately that fell into place. Fate.
Josie Stead (formerly general manager at Heston’s Dinner), Will Lander (son of wine grande dame Jancis Robinson and FT food critic Nick Lander, and co-owner of newcomer Portland) and head chef Shaun Searley (Bistrotheque, Paternoster Chop House): two budding restaurateurs and a chef introduced by mutual friends who carry firm belief in their talents, the love of wine and fervent desire to produce a menu of seasonal, superbly sourced, simply presented food.
Yet, Josie and Will didn’t know each other previously, they were following their own dreams of opening a restaurant – and Shaun was taken on with a few weeks until opening. The butcher’s and deli which stands snugly next door was actually a decorating supplies company. Yet it has all worked out.
The Quality Chop House isn’t a house but it is something of a home – a home for people, plenty of regular, ultra-loyal visitors, who return time and again for the experience; for the interior, which is unchanged (indeed the benches/banquettes are listed); for the eccentric plates; for the intimate atmosphere (with really intimate kitchen – no secrets here); for the devotion to simple, tasty food. For the quality chops.
But, it’s not as if the QCH is stuck in a timewarp, far from it. In its current incarnation it is only three years old. It is run with a sharp, laser-beam focus on fresh, seasonal produce and superb meat. (They opened a butcher’s next door to create room for meat prep and now supply wholesale.) It has a chef with some serious skills. It has wines of the highest quality.
Josie has clear ideas of what makes QCH special: “Energetic dishes from considerately sourced ingredients, well-priced wines with a list dedicated to small producers and rare old beauties, and service that brings it all together in a warm, informed and humble manner.”
It’s pretty much on the mark. “I think we really achieve this,” she goes on. “I see it in our dedicated staff who treat the business as if it was their own and also in the loyal regulars and excited newcomers. There is a good feeling here.”
They had thought of changing the name but felt, as Josie puts it, “it’s better not to always be known as ‘the place formerly known as …’ The fact that so many people have memories of QCH has meant you often feel like a proud custodian of a historic eatery. I think we have helped revive an old gem.”
Indeed, general manager Miranda remembers it well. “I grew up round here in Islington, I came here for years. I remember the uncomfortable benches. It was more straight-up fare but had a similar vibe. It’s a bit more elegant now, though.”
In progressing the QCH to better reflect its community of business folk and Farringdon’s more polished contemporary feel, Shaun, in cahoots with the QCH butchers next door, has a menu changing twice a day to reflect that elegance, and offering both a la carte and set menu.
“It’s about being extremely reactive, when a product comes in, or you have a short season for a vegetable or something like gulls eggs for example, which you can have and then they’re gone. It’s the produce and the seasons that write the menu. We’ve got a few dishes in the repertoire now that we’ll continue to use.”
Shaun has the glint in his eye of a chef doing exactly what he loves: “It’s been an opportunity to come and do exactly the food I’d been refining over the last few years”, is how he puts it, in understated fashion.
This produces a menu that at any time can pass through hot smoked mackerel, Welsh rarebit, chops of all designations, Denham estate lamb, hake, roast beef ploughman’s, lardo, baked aubergine, all accompanied by an idiosyncratic but democratic selection of wines erring on the side of reasonably priced.
And the critics love it, the Coren, the Maschler, the O’Loughlin, all purring.
Nary a mention of the slightly odd interior, which, in hindsight, makes perfect sense but you’d never design it this way. The ornate turn-of-the-century clocks ticking, the ascetic wooden benches, the vintage crockery, a tiny chequer-floor wine bar. It can’t have been a plan, but it was, and it wasn’t.
With Exmouth Market round the corner changed beyond recognition, stuffed full off mouthwatering streetfood stalls and restaurant newcomers, the QCH coolly hangs out doing its own thing on the Farringdon Road, not clinging to the latest fashions but presenting superbly honest food and drink in a timeless fashion.
Just round the corner, HotJoint witnessed yet another food revolution in the unique Exmouth Market