Signature Dish: Wild venison, Bull & Last

In the first of a new series, Nick Offer takes a look at a classic local must-try

‘A bit of roasted veg, a puree, a roasted bit of meat…You get fed.’ Photo: Ollie Pudney
Just shy of its tenth anniversary, The Bull and Last in Gospel Oak is still greater than the sum of its diverse (and impressive) parts – relaxed boozer, intimate restaurant, foodie haunt, Heathside stop off. Chef-proprietor Ollie Pudney knows his varied audience well and, judging by the quality of the food he sends out, likes them. Testament to this is the establishment’s best loved dish, introduced seven years ago and rarely absent since.

If the Bull and Last is greater than the sum of its parts then the classic venison main, which elegantly merges five elements, fits the ethos admirably. “A bit of roasted veg, a puree, a roasted bit of meat, a second preparation of meat, not overly styled. You get fed.” Or so says Pudney; chefs are so dispassionate.

While he hesitates to describe his creation as a signature dish – not, as noted, being one for bluster – he acknowledges that of all the dishes on the Bull and Last menu “people come here for this one.’”

Apparently it emerged fully formed from his fevered brow all those years ago and has required minimal refining since. Seems they nailed it from the start.

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The “roasted veg” is salsify, a winter root with a faintly oysterish flavour. A sweet sherry vinegar reduction surrounds it, lending a bit of twang to the autumnal thud. That thud is echoed in the puree which is another autumnal root – celeriac – whipped up with an adult dose of cream and butter.

As for the kromeski, I’d never heard of it either. Pudney tells me it’s a close Polish cousin of the Spanish and French incarnations. But where these involve potato or béchamel the kromeski is formed from braised meat – in this case braised shoulder of venison (Pudney describes it as a ragu) – slow cooked for six hours. Chilled, breadcrumbed, then deep-fried, it’s a godsend for the crunchy/yielding crowd.

The main event, of course, is the venison haunch, cooked medium-rare and served on top of the salsify and celeriac. To produce uniform portions and minimise wastage (ever a chef’s concern) Pudney divides the rear leg into five and roasts these individually. That way too he has more control over the degree of doneness.

The bias of the dish is very autumn-winter and needs a touch of brightness. Something colourful, an extra dimension aesthetically and texturally. Step up to the plate pistachios (made into a ‘crumble’ with slow cooked onions) and blackberries. With that, Pudney says, “it all comes together”. Amen.

Having tasted The Bull and Last’s venison I’d say that it certainly has the pow, the balance and the identity of a dish that goes by the name of ‘signature’. The unpresuming Pudney would no doubt demur. But when I ask him if he’s ever surprised by the dish’s popularity cracks appear in his customary restraint. “No,” he beams emphatically, “because it’s delicious.”

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Bull & Last, open daily till 11pm, 168 Highgate Road NW5. More details here

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