Flask Walk is like being on holiday: the cobbled pedestrianized street, boutiques, musty second-hand bookshop with maze-like corridors. Then there are the vintage shops, ice cream parlours and cafes, all with outside seating and giving off a whiff of the lanes in Brighton – just half an hour’s mooch up the hill in NW3.
And whilst the absence of local legend Jackie’s outdoor stall – which used to sprawl across the slabs – is a shame, the upside is she now sells outside the new vintage shop on Queen’s Crescent. (If you haven’t been, get down there on a Saturday lunchtime; a veritable mini Portobello of junktique).
Anyway. Despite a soft spot for the capital’s exclusive hilltop resort, we rarely stop at The Flask, often admiring its facade and corner location (and cute but creaking 70s restaurant La Cage Imaginaire to its left).
Dating back to 1869, its name, in fact, comes from containers used to bottle the medicinal waters known as “The Wells”, a spring running down from the heath. Yet, historically, we have swerved it at mealtime: Hampstead has a range of decent gastropubs these days, and The Horseshoe, Wells, Old White Bear or Holly Bush often prove much more tempting.
Still, since the place has had a recent spruce-up manager Claudia invited us to try it out. Hoping for some good alfresco people-watching, we were disappointed that our chosen Saturday lunchtime was overcast, all howling winds one minute, bright sunshine the next. Yet we bravely sat outside in an attempt to soak up the vacation-like atmosphere, and over a chilled Cotes de Provence, watched the passing cast of wealthy emo kids, kooky teenage girls, Japanese tourists, and genteel Hampstead folk.
The menu? British-centric and local this and that (including the ubiquitous Camden And Meantime ales and lagers). However, our starters weren’t great: a hard scotch egg failed to convince (it’s just a bullet without that runny centre) and a bit of chewy gristle in the lamb breast croquettes was a real spit-it-out moment. Ham hock terrine and chutney was decent, but untoasted sourdough? It just didn’t all make sense.
Mains were, happily, better. Chicken Kiev, with a quite unseasonally wintry cabbage and celeriac and truffle mash, was a comforting plate and very, very filling. But most impressive was a dressed Brixham crab with watercress and chips. Light, summery, it worked with the rosé, and came with a fun shot of Bloody Mary. (By this point we had escaped the cold into the atmospheric dark-panelled partitioned pub section, gawping at the hand-painted screen by Belgian artist Jan van Beers. It’s nicer than the more “on trend” new restaurant interior.)
We were persuaded to try a dessert, but the pastry was rather hard in our lemon tart, despite a pleasing citrus twang and zingy accompanying raspberry sorbet. A selection of British cheese – Lincolnshire Poacher, Shropshire Blue – was solid and reliable, buoyed up by a lazy glass of Pinot Noir.
To its credit the food is well-priced, with many mains around a tenner. And we liked how Claudia ran the joint, her pleasant approach. So skip the starters and The Flask is an acceptable eating option if you’re passing; but like being on holiday, the food is often better when you come home.