Whole Beast at The Fat Walrus, 44 Lewisham Way, London SE14 6NP

- Review -

Whole Beast at The Fat Walrus: A Menagerie of Meats

Long before message boards and comments sections, there was another place to spill your unlettered, and badly -if at all- researched opinions, to a captive audience: the pub. Somehow, despite drinking being an overworked limb of British culture, we’ve never managed to get a grip on it in such a way that doesn’t make the rest of the world cringe. It could all be solved with practicing aperitivo, but no- deliberate neglect to line the stomach is regarded by some as thrifty- shrewd, even.

To many, pubs are homes away from home but some make themselves a little too comfortable, causing the line between business and patron to become blurred. Regulars get tetchy about their stool or their 'special’ glass but are only in the pub because sitting at home in itchy pants, clinking one empty onto another, covered in Space Raider crumbs and trying to remember their kids’ names brings them face to face with the societal casualty they’ve become. To avoid this reality check, they form a denial collective under the guise of a social life in an attempt to subvert the stigma- arriving in groups or trickling in, greeting each other like mates, only to immediately sit in opposite sides of the room once a drink is in hand. Unless of course, someone owes a round.

This conflation of home and public life means that when a pub attempts a Sunday roast, it can attract a degree of ire that’s totally unique. Because many of us have grown up with it, we feel so attached that it conjures a militant expertise on the matter, to the point where we get all tribal in the name of the ideal roast potato. It’s an absolute minefield for pubs to do because a roast is an attempt to satisfy varying, but nonetheless deeply-held, standards of expectation. Sometimes they’re confusingly haute, other times you can taste the spreadsheets from which they spawned and so it’s not unusual for pubs to outsource their food offerings to specialists in order to circumvent the risk.

After considerable trials and tribulations, The Fat Walrus pub on the Lewisham/New Cross border finally found salvation with Whole Beast- run by couple Sam and Alice. ‘A live fire nose-to-tail concept’ might sound like all the right buzzwords thrown together, yet they do anything but. The menu is an invigorated take on traditional fare, with a few wildcards thrown in that blow away the cobwebs.

And you thought this was an unlettered, badly-researched rant on pub culture. And to be fair, you could yet be right.

Anyway, as always, there must be bread. I order it mostly as a trust exercise because of the insight it can offer- and it seems we’re in good hands. Three chunky draft excluder-sized slices of St. John's sourdough join a bowl of rapeseed oil with a silt of Imperial Stout molasses lurking at the bottom. The stout flavour is unmistakable, having been dutifully reduced just before the point of bitterness, the sugars singing without turning sickly like The Carpenters. The Tater Tots and whipped cod’s roe in many ways encapsulate what’s to come; playful dishes with full-bodied self-esteem.

I would say their cheeseburger sausage roll is a case in point after pining for it online, but it’s not on today. Instead, there’s something equally as exciting- a savoury butter pudding that resembles a Rubik’s Cube welded together with the caramelised umami of dripping and Marmite. A few cornichons on the side offer their snap of acidity, whilst a generous scale of melting ex-dairy cow salami brings up the rear.

Even the vegetarian option, that can be made vegan, refuses to play second fiddle, as is often the case. A ‘Coal Roast Vegetable Plate’ sees a melange of Ironbark pumpkin, burnt leek, celeriac, burnt hispi, carrots, roast potatoes, gravy and Yorkshire pudding. There’s a tendency for places that emphasise the element of smoke in their dishes to go a bit mental with it, as if it’s compensating for something. Sam and Alice however, employ this with such consideration that it weaves itself throughout the menu without ever appearing overwrought or clumsy.

Served whole as a two-person operation is a whole chicken, terracotta with rub, smoke and roast. Still yielding and succulent, the flesh is imbued with evidence of skill at each stage of prep, giving a flavour profile that 65% textbook roast chicken and 35% lingering-in-your-garms smoke. And the skin is crispy- none of that scrotum-like texture that comes from rushing things.

Collar, neck- whatever you prefer, is something to be cherished in all its intramuscular beauty, particularly if it’s pork. A couple of thick slices of it are flaunting their sequined juices, reclining on a fibrous mound of smoked pulled shoulder. In a similar vein is the pulled smoked ox cheek cooked down into a sticky but threaded mulch, absolutely lowing with a reduced stock and draped with slices of tender blushing rump cap only slightly firmer than Sitwell in an updraft.

All of these roasts come with a wedge of hispi that is properly charred without immolation, remaining sweetly tender within, roasted carrots that are fat, fudgy coins whilst the roast potatoes are golden shells concealing a fluffy mash. All are accompanied with a healthy dollop of sourdough sauce, English mustard and creamed horseradish respectively- a quiet assertion from the kitchen that, although embracing change, some classics are non-negotiable. The Yorkies are textbook billowing cups, absent of grease and able to hold extra gravy without compromise, each of which a lovingly made jus derived from its respective animal.

Perhaps most beguiling is the smoked cauliflower cheese- an importing of Sam’s home experience. It’s not just the silken 20-tog bechamel that’s humming with cheese, the considerate use of smoke or the roast on the florets, but the topping. Crushed cheese and onion crisps. We have Sam's mum to thank for this touch and we should feel unreservedly blessed.

Finally, dessert. The first is a sticky toffee pudding that exudes the Whole Beast approach- disarmingly simple in appearance and technically astounding. Using the Ikea mattress ‘Firmness and Scale Chart’ this thing ranks 3-4: plush with a decent sinkage that returns to form over a short, but noticeable time. Brown bread ice cream sits gripped by toasted crumb, the beer caramel cosied with added malt and gleaming with butter.

Owing to Alice’s Polish roots is the apple sorbet and Bison Grass vodka. The sorbet’s flavour profile is a nigh-on carbon copy of my Nan’s apple puree, warm with cinnamon still a sourness tempered by a slow simmer. Three scoops are simply piled into a glass of the chilled vodka and it’s one of the only times I’ve wanted to have a roast in summer, just to end it with this. It’s so clean, satisfying and nostalgic.

Alice then bestows upon us her nan’s walnut tart- and it’s worth its weight in doilies. An adorable riff on a pecan pie, it wants me to finish it whilst my parents aren’t looking so she can sneak me another because I’m a growing boy. A big, clutchable pearl of milk ice cream completes this little victory, lending a creaminess that slinks away instead of adding heft.

What makes everything more incredible is that this is the vision of two people, who stick to their guns of not only what a roast is to them, but what it can be for all of us. The playfulness belies the skill and the skill belies the simplicity with which it’s presented, all without being any sort of humble brag. These two just want to feed you in a way that excites them personally, in the hopes that it will do the same for you. This resonates throughout every dish without exception. And this is just the Sunday menu- their weekday is a whole other world of gloriously tweaked classics and reimaginings.

I booked a table the moment I left, in the name of research, which is a bittersweet thing as they’ve recently announced they’ll be looking for new premises as of June. Right around the time Sting started to snort Nag Champa and refer to himself in the third person, he said something particularly trite and cringe that is unfortunately true: if you love something, set it free. And that’s what we must do, so that Whole Beast will thrive again and The Fat Walrus can be a beacon to the next worthy outfit.