The Canton Arms

There are various restaurants that I try to go to with particular people. Maybe the friends are knowledgeable about the type of cooking, or will appreciate a particular vibe. Maybe they live nearby, or maybe a place is expensive and they’re rich and they might pay for me. Whatever, I reckon giving a little consideration to whether your dining partners match a restaurant is fair enough.

That said, the approach can be a little restrictive. Often it means waiting. For instance, I have been trying to arrange a visit with two different friends to the Canton Arms on the South Lambeth Road for about two years. Our intentions to go together were based on the fact that (a) I wanted to go and (b) they both lived within spitting distance of the place (or stabbing or shooting distance – when in Rome). But, for a thousand reasons, we haven’t got round to it. The result being that in all that time, I’ve not been. Which seems foolish.

I took the issue into my own hands and went yesterday. Without either of them. Partly because I was bored of waiting and wanted to show that I could act independently and decisively. But mostly because they’ve now both moved too far away to make a visit for a while anyway; apparently the weekend connections from Sydney and Shanghai to Stockwell aren’t totally dependable at the moment – something for Boris to address in his second term, I think.

The Canton Arms, as the name suggests, is a pub. It’s got all the hallmarks of being a good one too: a simple room with a bar, alcohol, snacks, stools, tables, the papers, that sort of thing. But we went for the food, which you get by sitting in a dining area filled with a mish mash of tables. It’s informal and comfortable; as a pub dining room should be.

Before we ordered we were directed to some some sharing options that were chalked up on a blackboard. If I hadn’t been totally satisfied with both the company that I was in and the menu choices that we had already made, I would have been a little sad that I wasn’t in a group of ‘fiveish’ – the suggested number to share a shoulder of kid and the trimmings. Pot roast duck with braised little gems, peas and bacon was a similarly attractive sharing option for two. A couple next to us had it and it looked pitch-perfect – they beamed throughout their meal. There’s clearly some great St John Bread and Wine style ‘feasting’ to be had here.

The menu for non-sharers was nicely compact, with just four or five options per course.

Written down, the starters didn’t look particularly inspired (fish soup, asparagus with poached egg and hollandaise, duck liver parfait, smoked mackerel). But, however simple the menu appeared, there can be no doubt that the cooking was spot-on. Sometimes whilst striving to be creative or original, kitchens forget the most important thing for the food to be is tasty.

You will find more refined fish soups than the one that my friend had, but they won’t necessarily be more satisfying. At the heart of it was a top quality stock, which went big on crustacean shell flavour (that’s good). The strands of Comté stretching out of the soup with each spoonful were ideal on a grey and damp day. My dish of curried mussels on toast was far more generous a portion than I had expected. It probably exceeded expectation on taste too. The mussels were fat and juicy and sat amongst soft and sweet yet earthy leeks, and a well balanced and well seasoned curried cream reduction. A great start.

The options for main courses were more racy than the starters, though they still remained relatively reserved. The components and cooking techniques are interesting but it’s not an ingredient overload; the Canton Arms makes virtually no attempt to showboat.

Hampshire pork ‘cooked like boar’ on soft polenta stood out, not least because I can’t believe many of us know how boar is cooked to make sense of the reference (is there only one way?), so I insisted my friend had that. In fact, and probably predictably, ‘like boar’ meant that this was a stew-like dish, with chunks of slow cooked pork flaking into an earthy, rich tomato and black peppery sauce. The polenta was well seasoned and tasty, but the texture of it was at the ‘this is like shit scrambled egg’ stage, and I would have preferred it to have been softer and creamier than that. A relatively minor quibble.

Given my current fixation with brown shrimps, it crossed my mind to have the slip soles with brown shrimps and pickled cucumber. But only momentarily as I remembered that I was a man, in a pub, in Stockwell, on a Sunday, and to avoid meat totally in my menu choices would have been an oversight (technically the pork dish wasn’t mine). So I had the roast short leg Dexter beef, which came with creamed leeks and crispy and salty roast potatoes. Delicious, tender, tasty and well seasoned. Not much more to be said than that.

We were both stuffed. But ‘a couple of tap waters and the bill please accidentally came out as ‘gin and tonics and doughnuts please’. Which turned out to be no bad thing. Two large doughnuts appeared, dusted in sugar and cinnamon and sitting temptingly in a plate of warm apple compote and cold clotted cream. There was no need or room for even sharing a dessert like this, yet there was also nothing left on the plate just 90 seconds or so after it was delivered.

It is worth mentioning that the waiting staff struck the perfect balance of being observant, cheery and effective without being overly attentive. Heck, even their card machine was quick. Well done them.

I massively enjoyed my meal here. The Canton Arms ‘get on with it‘, with very little fuss but to great effect. They cook and season things properly and confidently which, actually, isn’t that common, particularly in this price bracket. The kitchen is effective and kind of trendy precisely because they are not being too ‘try-hard’.

It’s a boozer with a great kitchen in the mould of the Anchor and Hope/Great Queen Street (no surprise as they’re linked), but you’re more likely to get a table here. I recommend you give it a go if you are a kind-of local (extending to anywhere in the Clapham, Brixton, Wandsworth, Vauxhall sphere). If you’re a bit better at organising people than I am, just having friends living nearby would be a good excuse too.

The Canton Arms in 3 words

Confident. Unfussy. Accomplished.

The Bill

This is great value: starters are about £6, mains (including the sharing options) are between £12-14.50 per person, and desserts around the £5 mark. – 177 South Lambeth Rd, SW8 1XP – 02075828710