In normal times, the pubs around Westminster are perpetually heaving; the area’s a tourist honey pot and, well, politicians need places to dry-hump their aides. One need only look at any recent political sexy digression to know instinctively that booze, and booze goggles, were involved. Of course, nothing is normal right now, so the brand spanking new Blue Boar Pub, which is about a 10-minute walk from the House of Commons, was peacefully sedate on the midweek lunchtime I visited.
The Blue Boar markets itself as “a sophisticated and modern take on a classic English pub” that sells Meantime pale ale and albariño by the glass, alongside fish and chips, scotch eggs, posh pork scratchings and so on, all overseen by the incredibly accomplished chef Sally Abé. I understand the need for the Blue Boar to set out its stall as an “English pub” to entice foreign tourists and residents of the Conrad St James hotel, to which it is attached, but the truth is there are British theme pubs on cruise ships that offer more of a sense of a slightly shabby UK boozer.
The Blue Boar, on the other hand, is a slick, pristine space with plush carpets, wine buckets, dozens of padded leather chairs, besuited bartenders and warm, knowledgable staff. Anyone who has ever killed time in one of the many semi-neglected London pubs on the street corners of Fitzrovia, Soho and the South Bank knows that this level of pomp is not typical. In fact, anyone entering a pub on, say, Oxford Street expecting to order a cold, hard Tommy’s margarita or a sumptuous plate of Wye Valley asparagus with smoked creme fraiche dressing may find themselves disappointed. Still, if one ignores, or indeed relishes, the fact that the Blue Boar is not really a pub at all, but a casual restaurant helmed by a hugely respected chef, then there’s a lot to like about this venture. It’s bright, airy, spotless and quite jolly, as if an eccentric American billionaire had spotted a Wetherspoons in Blackpool and flapped his arms around shouting, “Yes, I want this, but make it very, very expensive and bring me a chef who has worked at The Ledbury, Elystan Street and the Harwood Arms to make devilled whitebait and burgers!” (Abé, incidentally, is also running a more formal, fine-dining restaurant called The Pem in the same hotel, which I plan to eat at soon.)
I ate at the Blue Boar with my friend Hugh, who helped me range across the menu with a few cold glasses of gavi di gavi. We were placed on a table for two in the window area that overlooks the street, but there are snugger, cosier tables on offer should you be going over some late paperwork with a lithe special adviser. We began with the bar snacks section, and some really very good coronation chicken scotch eggs – warm, crisply breadcrumbed, runny yolks – that were served with a golden raisin chutney. Delicious. Whitebait were large, semi-soggy beasts, but we demolished them anyway. And pork scratchings were those modern, air-light, large Quaver affairs, rather than the old-school, hairy, scabby ones that haunt many of our nightmares from childhood, and came with a sweet, bramley apple dipping sauce.
For starters, we shared a slice of good Montgomery cheddar, leek and smoked ham quiche. Never before have I mentioned quiche in a restaurant column. It has disappeared from our restaurant menus, which is a shame, because when it’s made like this, there’s nothing quite like it, although it always makes me think back to when quiche lorraine first arrived in 1970s Carlisle with a hand-written name tag in the cake shop window, and word quickly spread down my street that it was pronounced “Quwinkie”. The London particular soup is the starter to go for if you’re hoping to impress your Instagram followers: it is a strikingly vivid green garden pea soup with a poached hen’s egg and herb focaccia.
For main, I chose one of the Blue Boar’s many vegetarian and vegan options – they’re very good like that – namely, the lentil shepherd’s pie with a side of purple sprouting broccoli. It was the hottest day of the year and the backs of my knees were clammy, but I couldn’t say no to a shepherd’s pie, especially one that came with a jug of rich, black garlic gravy. The market fish of the day was lemon sole, which arrived under-seasoned and with a rather anonymous lemon, parsley and caper butter.
We passed on puddings because nothing on the menu – buttermilk pannacotta with strawberries, earl grey chocolate mousse or apple tart – leaped out at us as irresistible. If some truly British rib-sticker such as spotted dick or jam roly-poly had been on offer, I’d have fully committed myself to the cause, but instead we finished the gavi and tottered back out into the sunlight. I’m unsure whether I’d go back to the Blue Boar to eat, but it’s a useful place to keep up your sleeve for a drink and a quick bite of something close to the Westminster village. Alternatively, if you’re not in the mood for politicians right now, at least you know where the buggers are drinking.