If you were debating the ideal location in Brixton to open a trendy cocktail bar and restaurant, I doubt the spot at 336 Coldharbour Lane would get much air time. Nevertheless, here lies the Shrub and Shutter, directly across from a car wash, in a parade of shops well away from the hubbub of Brixton Village.
Once you step inside though, you can see that what they might be saving on rent has been thoughtfully applied to a funky fit out: chemistry lab style cocktail bar in the front, cosy dining space in the back, kitchen shoe-horned in between.
On the Friday night we visited, things were revving up nicely in the bar at around 7pm but only a couple of tables were taken in the back. By 8pm both spaces were rammed with lovely young things.
On arrival (and as always seems to be the case in near empty dining rooms), the waitress’s opening offer was the worst table in the house. I’m not sure if restaurants do this to everyone or if it’s just me – perhaps they don’t want me facing into the room and scaring off business? Anyway, my counter offer of a nice corner table was accepted without fuss and meant we could appreciate the cosy dining room. They’ve done well with the space, lots of blonde wood and clever lighting, seats at a counter along one wall and wine choices chalked up on blackboards.
We tried a selection of bar snacks as well as the menu proper which offers a trio each of starters, mains and desserts. Of the bar snacks the mussels with tomato, chilli and lime were the clear winner, with some nicely smoky charred bread supplied to mop up the sauce. Good sized portion too, though as well it might be for £8.
Duck hearts with potato and cheese were less successful. Admittedly not everyone will be on board with eating duck hearts, but I’m a big fan of them when done well. Unfortunately these were instead well-done: cooked too long and then served on a cold plate, rendering the eating experience akin to working your way through a dish of rubber bullets. Confit chicken croquettes with tarragon emulsion were OK, but I’d take the ham croquettes at Naughty Piglets over these any day.
Of the starters, the pisco cured sea trout with puffed rice, grapes and a quail egg had the edge over pigeon with celeriac, parsnip and raisin. The former was a well thought out dish, although the trout was very salty from the cure, which might not please all. The pigeon again suffered from being served on a cold plate, which was a recurring theme throughout the meal.
Mains of parmesan gnocchi with butternut squash and skate wing with artichoke and potato risotto showed the kitchen’s ambition. Again, these were “almost but not quite” sort of dishes: you can see what they are aiming for but they’re falling just short, an overcooked ingredient here, a misjudged sauce there.
I think the kitchen is hamstrung by its own enthusiasm. If they removed some of the trendy touches and focussed on the main ingredients, I can’t help feeling they would fare better. Take the skate wing for example, why not focus on cooking it perfectly and forget about potato risotto, which with the best will in the world is never going to be an improvement on a rice risotto.
That said, I couldn’t help but admire the Shrub and Shutter and they get high marks for effort. They aren’t far off serving some good stuff here and at £22 for two courses and £26 for three, it’s not crazily expensive. But if they want consistency I suggest they simplify the dishes a bit. And for goodness sake lads, warm those plates!