Many believe you can’t go wrong with gastro-pub grub. Others, including myself, think that it has a time and a place, ideally at actual gastro-pubs where the main courses cost a tenner, not at canal-side alfresco restaurants. Dining in the sun is in demand once again, and it just cries out for the flavours of fresh burrata, basil, and enormous juicy prawns cooked in garlic. Instead, we are once again offered Caesar salad and a medley of burgers. (Burrata is on the menu, but at £15. For a starter.)
Looks can be deceiving. The Waterway, a secluded restaurant deep in the marshy canals of Paddington Basin, doesn’t promise anything other than gastro-pub food. This is a wasted opportunity.
London used to be my stomping ground. I lived there a few years ago and liked to believe I’d become a connoisseur of the city’s renowned restaurant scene (meaning I chose to spend my meagre chef’s wages on dining out). Four years since leaving the city, and discovering I now have no suggestions to give friends who ask for restaurant recommendations, the city has clearly grown up without me, and I, like a clingy ex-girlfriend, am still trying to act like I know everything about it.
Which takes me to the restaurant I dined at with friends Suzie and Tony last week. It goes to show how little I actually knew about London despite my ‘expertise’ as this was the first time I’d traversed along Paddington Basin which is nowadays a hot-spot for bars and eateries. This green splotch in the middle of one of the world’s mega-cities is an oasis and it might as well have flamingos and herons paddling around the canal boats, and is so naturally tranquil with willow branches trailing in the water that I had urges to chirp ‘just around the river beeennnddd!’ in chorus with all the birds.
The further we walked along the canal, the quieter and denser the gentrified foliage became, then out of the greenery blossomed The Waterway. The restaurant, in my opinion, is decorated in the style of a 1920s pleasure boat and had flowers wrapped around its pillars, and I half expected to see Poirot popping his head out from under a table, rummaging around for clues to a murder.
So, the scene was set and my expectations were high.
First thing’s first – The Waterway was busy. It was one of the first evenings that thrummed with summer. Table space was limited and we were clearly instructed that we’d need to sacrifice our table in an hour and a half. Our waiter was eager to serve us; it was us that kept delaying proceedings what with all our catching up and chin-wagging. So, I can’t gripe about them swiping our table back right on cue.
However, I feel perfectly entitled to gripe about the menu. Whenever I eat out, I dare myself to try something new that’s within my budget. But, when you’re handed a gastro-pub menu (which is ostentatiously labelled ‘a la carte’) that is a mis-matched muddle of high-end bistro combined with a local Wetherspoons (grilled swordfish meets ‘superfood salad’) this can be a feat of some doing.
That said, I should have known that by choosing the crab tempura burger I was making a mistake. I was probably craving those imaginary prawns in garlic, and add the proximity of the canal and all that water, seafood was my kryptonite. But honestly, I should have known better.
A lack of awareness of what you’re eating is a sad sorry state of affairs. If a meal has nothing memorable about it, you just shovel it into your open mouth in an act that is nothing more methodical than filling your car with petrol. However, I can’t be sure which is worse – complete unawareness of your meal or a sharp poke of disappointment?
Potentially the latter. So, where to start?
My burger, full of watercress and two random long sticks of leek, was topped with a crisped and battered soft shell crab, looking ready to scuttle right off my plate. Moisture and flavour are usually essential requirements for a burger and with my big first bite, I noted that both were lacking. Crab tempura begs for beautiful, bold flavours like spicy chopped salsa, wasabi, siracha, or tartare sauce or maybe salsa verde. There was none of that here. Even the watercress didn’t deliver, its fresh peppery flavour seemingly sapped from its leaves in sheer embarrassment. Instead the crab was lacklustre (and crunchy with fragments of soft shell which was a minor choking hazard), and honestly those long crunchy pieces of leek sticking out like chopsticks were such a peculiar addition, especially as they were stone cold. The only solution was to eat them separately as this misshapen, hodge-podge of a burger was impossible to keep intact.
I tried to continue with the conversation around the table – although Tony was buried in the foot of sticky ribs on his plate, having evidently chosen well – but persevering through this shocking crab tempura burger took too much energy, so my normal abilities to communicate were greatly impaired.
Dinner over and done with, thank god, we skipped dessert and ordered large glasses of white wine, Tony selecting a measure of Maker’s Mark. This splash of whisky stood at the grand height of 2mm in his glass and could be drunk in one swallow for a delicious £5.
So, after these four years away from London, my return was a celebration of expensively average gastro-grub.
Average cost per main course: £20
Average cost per person for drinks, one main meal plus service charge: £35-40
Final verdict: Escape the smog of London’s city centre to The Waterway for an alfresco drink, but learn from my mistakes and eat somewhere else.
The website for The Waterway is here