Big Review: Bull and Last, Highgate Road


In the wake of other openings, Kentish Town’s most acclaimed gastropub had been sidelined. So what’s it like now?



The sharing fish platter. Eye-watering. Photo: Stephen Emms
The sharing fish platter. Eye-watering. Photo: Stephen Emms

The truth is we were in danger of taking the Bull & Last – one of London’s finest gastropubs – for granted. Sure, we’ve been there many times since its award-winning relaunch half a decade back, but last year it was somehow overlooked. And you lot appeared to feel the same: a clear winner in our 2011 Best Evening Meal Reader Awards, by 2012 it had slipped a couple of places due to the runaway success of Soho House openings Chicken Shop and Pizza East.

So a return snoop seemed overdue. Accepting their invite, it was a relief to see the simple interior, with its panelling and taxidermy, hadn’t changed. For a starter we were persuaded to try some of the more popular items from their summer picnic hamper, served colourfully on a wooden board (main pic above): house-cured beetroot gravalax, its earthiness made pungent with horseradish; asparagus with crispy hen’s egg and parmesan custard, a Bull classic, and rightly so. Then there was a nicely textural sea trout tartare and cured cucumber with avocado, croquettes filled with soft smoked haddock, a standout velvety chicken liver parfait…You simply won’t, we reckoned, eat more splendidly than this on the Heath.

Ale drinkers side by side with diners and cooing couples.
Ale drinkers side by side with diners and cooing couples.
This is not a surprise, of course. The place is internationally renowned, so we chose two less tempting mains in an attempt to be as objective as possible. Cornish cod – a corpulent fillet cooked perfectly opaque – arrived in a moreish broth with plump mussels and spaghettini, and deeply flavoursome “seashore” vegetables: beets, kale and samphire. But star of the show was the middle-eastern blend of lamb with smoked aubergine: generally not my favourite combination, but here a triumph, served pink with wild garlic, artichoke, and a mince-like mush of toasted pine nuts and olives. Its richness was heightened by Vega Tinto from Portugal, a smoky wine from the port-making region packed with notes of cherry and plum.

To finish? Salt caramel truffles and a decaf Mussetti coffee, as convincing as any I’ve tasted.

It appears effortless here: always a good sign, and proof that chef-proprietor Ollie Pudney and co-owner Joe Swiers are rightly focused on just the one gaff (they got rid of their other place in Putney). And they work carefully to get the balance right, very much in evidence on our visit: rowdy ale drinkers at the bar, couples cooing over Scotch eggs, and groups of diners feasting on some of the finest food in north London, as the heat emanated from the kitchen on a warm summer night.

This is box title
168 Highgate Road NW5. Three course meal for two with wine around £90. A picnic hamper for two is £38. Kentishtowner Rating: 9/10

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  • Jennifer Flatman Young

    Last time we went here we were really disappointed – the cooking had seriously gone down hill and the service wasn’t all that great either. A few years ago I’d say the BL was easily the best place in the neighbourhood, but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps the new competition has made them up their game.

  • Tom Moxham

    It’s always been one of those places ‘we must try’ but drops quite quickly off the radar when we’re not walking to and from the Heath. We finally booked in last week with a good group of us, all of which were open to sharing a load of different bits. The meat board was smokey and sumptuous, the House Red, more than quaffable and the Lamb main one of the tastiest, well balanced mains I’ve ever had. I’ll proudly piggie back the 9/10 with my arms swinging.

  • Trace

    Had Sunday lunch here today and was a little disappointed to be honest, especially after all the good things I’ve heard about the restaurant. My beef was tasty enough but decidedly fatty – one piece was mainly fat – and certainly not worth the £20 I paid for it.

    • Trailermouse

      totally agree + x2 experiences like this in the same month is 2 too many…

  • Anastasiya

    I am a very lazy reviewer, not writing outstanding reviews where they are due, and not highlighting the negatives in certain restaurants to warn potential future customers from the horrors I have experienced, but the Bull & Last horror was so bad, I simply cannot let this one slide!

    Just to draw-up some context, myself and my partner are real foodies, we love discovering and trying new places, these span from Michelin-starred restaurants right down to the takeaway food trucks, the only requirement we have is great food (and preferably good service, but we can let this slide in the name of a delectable meal). The point here, is we are not concerned with the fluff, and can appreciate quality food, which unfortunately we did not find at the Bull & Last.

    The Bull & Last, was on our forever expanding list of places to visit, and so the miserable Sunday weather of the 10th of August (2014) prompted us to seek out the comforts of a cosy local pub, with what we believed was going to be a party for our bellies, so much so that on arrival, I declared how much I love that we reside in North London because we are fortunate to have such wonderful places as our ‘local eats’ (this was before we had even walked through the door).

    We settled somewhere half way by a window, perfect for people watching and taking in the decor (don’t let this fool you). Our menus arrived with one decorated with a questionable stain, it could have been baby-food, it could have been adult food-splatter, who knows, but undeterred I pushed the stained menu (a double-sided A4 sheet of paper) away and suggested we share, who needs individual menus anyway?

    We settled on an Organic Sea Trout Salad with Marsh Samphire, Cucumber & Crispy Hen’s Egg (£9) to share. Credit where it is due, this was absolutely delicious. Fresh, full of flavour and did a great job of wetting our appetite for the mains. North Essex Shorthorn Roast Rib of Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Roast Potatoes, Carrots & Horseradish (£20 each) was our choice of mains. We had seen this travelling past us to the neighbouring tables, and it felt just right for a Sunday!

    On arrival, the mains looked incredible, we had certainly waited for them log enough and without hesitation we began to devour what we hoped would be the answer to the the Sunday-blues. Can I just point out, at this point we were still not asked if we would like anything to drink, though a bottle of water was placed on our table during the routine table set-up/napkin and cutlery placement. This is the exact point where the worms began to climb out of the woodwork, not literally, however that would not surprise me much either. Not long into the main course, and my partner questioned the meat ” Darling, how is you meat? Mine appears to be undercooked, look…” pointing to a bloody piece of limp meat which was hidden under the enormous Yorkshire pudding, less amusing now that we were questioning whether the meat was sufficiently cooked. I inspected mine, yes it did appear rather ‘rare’, but as I am not averse to a little bit of redness in my meat, this did not put me off, completely. My partner did not eat the meat. I was weary that we were neither presented with a choice of how we would like our meat cooked, neither were we advised that this is served rare (raw). At this point it is probably not necessary to talk about the potatoes, but these were, ironically, over-cooked, hard and not very fresh.

    Our plates were collected and the routine half-question half-statement was muttered “How was your food…?”. I did not hesitate to point out that the meal was disappointing, and the untouched meat on my partner’s plate was clearly raw. The waitress apologised, and said she will pass this on to the kitchen. She offered us up the dessert menus, which at this point appeared to be nothing more than flowery words with an unjustifiable price-tag, we opted for coffees. These were the final disappointment of the afternoon, or so we thought, but I will come back to this part of the story last. Our bill was honoured with a measly deduction of my Bloody Mary, and our total was still £61 with both £20 mains inclusive, I found this to be a very poor excuse for an apology!

    We had gone in to the Bull & Last with such optimism, only to leave feeling cheated.