Annie and I hadn’t been to Joe Allen for a while … well, since the beginning of the year; longer than usual. My writing the blog has taken us in search of new places to try, but every so often we just have to return to Joe Allen. It’s a bit like going home. However far you travel, however nice it’s been, it’s always nice to come home. And it’s always nice to go back to Joe Allen.
It’s been over 18 months since the new owners moved in. Slowly and carefully they’ve been gently bringing this iconic Covent Garden restaurant into the 21st century. Taking it over from someone who had opened it and then run it for 35 years was always going to bring challenges, but the new owners – most especially Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy, experienced restaurateurs who have been very much hands-on – have taken care not to change it so much as refine it; to improve the bits that needed attention while leaving the bits already working well alone. It shows confidence that they didn’t feel the need to make a big mark of their own – as many new owners would – but it also demonstrates their affection for the place.
Arriving is just the same; well, almost the same. The new red awning above the entrance is a little more obvious but essentially the entrance remains discreet. You almost have to know it’s there. Down the stairs to the basement where low lighting is more about lack of windows that anything fancy, all looks just as you would remember it if you hadn’t been there for years.
But there are changes. They are as discreet as the entrance yet their impact is significant. I mentioned some in my interview with Lawrence and Tim last year (click here) but each time Annie and I return, we notice a few more: the better quality wine glasses, the greatly improved house wine, the posh Penhaligon’s soap in the ladies’. Most of all, the changes to the menu itself.
The food was always good at Joe Allen but it wasn’t a food destination; you didn’t go there for the food, you went because it was a great place to hang out (see my first review). Now the food is great and the menu stronger; its American roots more clearly defined: Black Bean Soup with Coriander and Garlic Croutons, Spiced Baby Back Ribs with Grilled Corn; a large selection of steaks with a separate list of sauces so you can have your steak exactly how you want – perhaps with chipotle mayonnaise or Bearnaise sauce; there’s Chopped Chilli Beef with Sour Cream, Guacamole & Skillet Potatoes and always a market fish of the day. If you have room for dessert, Dark Chocolate Fudge Brownie with Spiced Nuts & Vanilla Ice Cream, or Apple & Bourbon Pie amongst other delights. They have some great cocktails on the drinks menu too.
A recent new addition is Lunchtime Special, available from noon to 4pm. This offers some fabulous sandwiches: The Hudson Bay with shrimp & crab, even a Classic PBJ Sandwich – peanut butter and jelly. Annie and I arrived in time for our usual early evening set menu and here there are obvious improvements, including that it’s now available until 7pm. It’s a more inventive menu now; more exciting. It was really quite hard to choose! Did we want Celeriac Soup with Mussels & Lemon Zest to begin, or Beetroot, Orange & Walnut Salad – or, as I chose, Bufala Mozzarella, Spiced Tomato Jelly & Basil.
It looked wonderful and it tasted great – an exciting explosion of flavours. Annie meanwhile was pleased with her beetroot salad.
The main courses were also great choices: Chicken Florentine, Poached Egg & Hollandaise, Housemade Ricotta & Spinach Cannelloni or, what we both chose, Tapenade Crusted Cod with Garlic Broccoli.
We were asked if we wanted some fries or potato mash to go with the main but we stuck to just the dish as it came (obviously giving some thought to our waistlines with summer’s arrival!). There was plenty anyway: excellent cod with the lovely slightly salty tapenade; perfectly cooked broccoli florets. There was chocolate brownie for dessert on the menu or cheese, but we stopped at the main course and just ordered some Americano coffees to finish. With the meal we’d had a glass of red wine – an offer of a 125ml glass of red or white for £3 with the menu. It was very good house wine. We remembered how the house wine used not to be that brilliant but this was a definite and welcome improvement. At £14.75 for 2 courses, the menu is great value.
I hadn’t arrived planning to write a post. We go there so often (even if it had been a little while) and regular readers of this blog know how much I love Joe Allen. But I think it was because after the slow and steady improvements over the last 18 months both Annie and I felt there had been a significant shift: it really was all much better; all those little touches of refinement had come together. This was most clearly obvious in the buzz around us. The restaurant did go through a quiet patch for a while after the new owners arrived and we would sometimes comment on what a shame it was that it wasn’t as full as it used to be. Last night it was full! The atmosphere was great, the food had been brilliant and really it was the only place to be on a Wednesday evening! And people were still coming in. In fact, just before 8.30 (we’d arrived at 6.30) someone came and politely asked if we could pay and move as the table was needed; but we could move to the bar if we wanted. In all the years we’ve been going there (at least 15!) this was only the second time we could remember having to give our table up after 2 hours. They usually tell you the table is for 2 hours when you book, although Annie said they hadn’t this time, and they definitely should. But to be honest, Annie and I can talk for England and have been known to be there until 9 or 9.30 still talking! It had been a great evening and so good to see Joe Allen buzzing with life, laughter – and some great food! – again. Without doubt it will continue to be Annie and my favourite haunt for a very long time to come!
See : www.joeallen.co.uk for more details and sign up to their newsletter for latest news and events.