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Jimi Famurewa reviews The Pelican: Scrubbed-up old boozer proves the best pubs are powered by the people

For all its meticulous good looks, this latest reboot of a much-rebooted pub is a big-hearted endeavour, says Jimi Famurewa

<p>Raising the bar: The Pelican, open since 1872, has been artfully done up</p>

Raising the bar: The Pelican, open since 1872, has been artfully done up

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
By @jimfam
08 June 2022
I

think my mate Mark might have been the first person I heard describe a formerly scuzzy, dramatically renovated pub as having been “gastrobombed”. You do not fight unimprovable coinage when you hear it. And so, as I pushed through the doors of The Pelican in Notting Hill — a freshly revamped, once notoriously insalubrious boozer that, in one form or another, has stood on All Saints Road since 1872 — I got the distinct sense of a pin having been recently pulled on a tasteful interiors grenade.

The walls were a buttery, artfully scuffed cream, accented here and there with bleached bushels of dried plants. The beer taps on the blonde wood bar were unsullied by anything as gaudy as keg badges telling you what was in them. And beside the stairs, glimmering, uplit jars of ferments and pickles lurked like Victorian medical curiosities. “Do you think that ever gets used?” said the pal who had joined me, nodding towards a dartboard that did look somewhat ornamental, perched in the corner of the sunlit, precisely art-directed space.

Thankfully, any worries about by-the-numbers cynicism proved to be well wide of the mark. Because, for all its meticulous good looks, this latest reboot of a much-rebooted pub, spearheaded by James Gummer, Rupert Walsh and chef Owen Kenworth, is a big-hearted endeavour, characterised by gutsy, sneakily creative food and the kind of warm, inviting atmosphere that makes you never want to leave. Which is not to say that there wasn’t some confusion early on. I arrived hoping for a Friday lunchtime walk-in, only to find that the main dining area — the one bordered by a large, ornate mirror that acts as a specials board — was currently closed during the day, the latest victim of the staffing crisis that is turning eccentric kitchen hours into a fact of the landscape. We would have to make do with the expansive bar menu (augmented, here and there, by evening dishes that had already been prepped). But, blessedly, this turned out to be not a bad consolation prize.

Mince on toast on a menu may feel like a kind of in-joke reclamation of the grim stodge that some Americans think we subsist on. Here, it is taken seriously: a sturdy, griddled plank of sourdough, heaped with a rich, profoundly flavoursome ragu and a melting, feathery drift of cheese. At the other end of the “on-toast” spectrum there was spider crab, heavily dressed, whipped into a creamy, generously flecked marine goo and lent a whisper of heat by cayenne pepper. Butter-drenched, perfectly al dente asparagus helped stave off any bar room scurvy. And a thick hake and bacon chowder had fragrant warmth and smoky, savoury depths, like a long, rib-squishing hug in a bowl.

Pointed lack of fuss: the bar menu has a number of bar-room classics

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures

There is a pointed lack of fuss here. An approach that isn’t all that surprising when you consider that Kenworthy was previously head chef at Brawn and Blueprint Cafe. Still, if there were blips — a custard-moated square of parkin in need of a little more stickiness; much-vaunted, laboriously prepared fermented chips that mostly tasted… like ordinary fried potatoes — then they seemed to be the result of the intensified scrutiny that such a forcefully simple approach invites.

But even a glancing view of the food showed me more than enough. This is a pub and restaurant taking the right sorts of chances with its aesthetic and cuisine; a haven of time-worn, elegantly austere design that’s also, it seems, already a convivial gathering point for an eclectic local crowd.

It is somewhere taking the right sort of chances with its aesthetic, a haven of elegantly austere design

Late on, we stepped outside with our pints of Portobello Pilsner and sat in the sunshine among tradesmen, young families and, memorably, some young lads grappling (for a painfully long time) with their hire car’s malfunctioning alarm. It was a reminder that pubs, if they are any good, truly feel like they belong to the community.

So, no, The Pelican has not quite been gastrobombed. But its rebirth, after a tumultuous 150 years, quietly shakes the foundations of what is possible in a storied, seemingly cursed local.

45 All Saints Road, W11 1HE. Meal for two plus drinks about £120. Open Monday to Thursday from 5pm-midnight, Friday to Saturday from noon-midnight and on Sunday from noon-11pm; thepelicanw11.com

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