With grouse season upon us, we had heard that Upstairs offered some of the best, and best value, grouse in London. We had seen grouse on the menu elsewhere at eyebrow raising prices, coupled with questions around competency, and had decided previously to pass. To get our first grouse fix of the season then, Upstairs at The Ten Bells seemed just the ticket. It's worth knowing, and clearly we didn't, that the lunchtime menu is a much shorter affair than dinner and looking at the website now (I rarely look at it before a visit except for the telephone number), we see it is billed as an 'express lunch' menu. This gives a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts. And no grouse!
I asked the waiter, would it possible, maybe, perhaps, please please please? He couldn't have been nicer and said he would ask the chef (he didn't know we were bloggers if you are wondering). The chef said yes, it was no problem, and while this is clearly all my fault for not doing my research on menus, the easy going way they dealt with my request engendered such goodwill towards the FOH that if they had subsequently dropped a bowl of soup on my lap (they didn't), I still would be singing their praises. But there were no incidents of this kind and throughout the rest of the meal FOH remained the perfect example of the informal professionalism that is the goal of most modern dining establishments. By way of a mention, for grouse at lunchtime in the future, they suggest simply mentioning it at the time of booking and it shouldn't be a problem going forward either.
With a choice of three snacks on the menu also, and feeling not as express as the City folk who generally inhabit the lunchtime service, Bishopsgate being just a few minutes walk away, we decided to try a bit of everything (almost). Snacks offered the choice of Buttermilk Chicken, Smoked Cod's Roe Tarama and Razor Clam. The buttermilk chicken as far as we are concerned is a London legend of a dish, so much so that we asked Issac to serve it at our recent event EatPlayLove2013. There, 150 people agreed, people loved it. The cod's roe was well accomplished also, a smooth texture with just the right amount of body, scooped up with potato dauphine churros. These are good snacks.
The two starters on offer are smoked wild salmon together with ricotta ravioli. Both were pleasing plates with the ravioli providing beautiful little parcels of pasta with additional comfort flavours of roast butternut and sage with some contrasting nutty crunch on the plate also. This is a lovely Autumn dish and to enjoy food like this tempers the loss felt with the passing of Summer.
But Autumn and Winter do provide much to look forward to at the dining table and one of those things is the game season. Rather than the usual bread sauce and game chips, here they served the grouse with beetroot, cavolo nero, the grouse heart and a game sauce. In some ways simple enough but so easily ruined if you get it wrong. But there were no issues like that, it was textbook cooking and the grouse delivered up the full flavour that only game birds can. It emphasised the point once more: despite it being a quirky old pub with a very scary barman downstairs coupled with a fading decor, they really are very serious about food and they come good on that. Trying to think where else in the Square Mile you could get grouse and I struggle. For the record, the menu offered lunchtime starters were Cornish Plaice (ordered, tasted, delicious) and Beef Rump (not tried).
The limited choices on the lunchtime menu only really impacted at dessert since cheese is one option leaving only one real dessert so in fact there is no choice. The day's prescribed dessert on our visit was poached pear. Undoubtedly it would have been excellent but it was not what we fancied on that occasion.
There has been much praise and many a blog post on Upstairs, but with Isaac & Co now at The Clove Club, that too is where the blog community has mostly migrated. But don't forget Upstairs, it's still there lunch and dinner, and from our visit and experience, still pushing out some of the best food City side in London, food that is as good quite frankly as anything else in the capital, including the West End M stars, but without the swanky postcode and the designer interior. The service at Upstairs is so friendly you wont mind that fact and when you step outside after the meal and discover that you still have money in your wallet for a round of drinks also, the migration East of London's dining scene seems like an even more welcome development. Upstairs at The Ten Bells then layers character, great food and value, another wonderful showcase of the hard work and talent now enshrined within the British food scene.