I'll admit, I was a tad bit overexcited as I walked to the City of London. After all, every colleague of mine told me I was a 'lucky b*****d' when they found out I was reviewing The Jugged Hare. Known for its seasonal menu and fresh game dishes, this gastro pub/fine-dining venue definitely has a reputation that any London restaurant would love. As soon as I stepped through the door, I knew exactly what all the fuss was about.
The Venue & Ambience
Wrapped around a street corner and sitting in the shadow of the iconic Barbican centre, The Jugged Hare looks like the sort of traditional gastro pub that you'd expect to find buried somewhere in Oxfordshire. The dark mahogany bar and the mounted stag heads are the first things you see when you arrive. After you've pushed your way passed all the pink, open-collar shirts, you'll see the bright restaurant, where the wonder of the venue really hits. The exposed brick walls have all been painted serene colours and are covered in hand-drawn diagrams and vintage pictures of British wildflowers. Ironically, the venue was really brought to life by the mounted animal heads and taxidermy creatures that sit in glass cases. Who knew there were so many different types of grouse?
But without question, The Jugged Hare's homely atmosphere is the thing that really clings. The sound of constant chatter and occasional bursts of laughter that come from the dining room will make you feel like you're in an M&S Christmas advert. The open kitchen pours out heat and light, and fills the dining area with an incredible smell that has your stomach rumbling in seconds. It's easy to sink into your chair and relax here. And that's the real secret behind the venue's success. From the menu and fresh ingredients, you'd think you were eating in some Michelin-starred, black tie-only restaurant. Instead, The Jugged Hare perfectly treads water by serving stunning food without the stuffy, snooty atmosphere that usually comes with it. Think of it as a five-star restaurant crossed with a laid-back, local boozer.
The Food & Drink
The menu at The Jugged Hare is changed every two months to match what's in season. To start, we went with the roasted cauliflower, gnudi and broccoli sprouts (£9), the smoked haddock served on a bed of heritage radish (£9) and the venue's signature black pudding croquettes (£7.50). The haddock flaked perfectly and the soft gnudi were full of smooth flavour, but both dishes had nothing on the fiery croquettes. With a slight spicy kick and offering a great crunch, the accompanying Guinness sauce added a dark, heavy flavour and took things to a different level. This is a must-try in my book.
Feeling pretty full and questioning how sensible our main course choices were, all our fear a disappeared when the 45 day-aged Ribeye steak (£34) and the Brixham Hake (£24) arrived. Despite the waiter leaning on us to go for the famous Jugged Hare dish, memories of our childhood pet bunnies stopped us from taking the plunge (we aren't savages). Both dishes really took as back. The perfectly cooked steak came a portion of chunky chips and possibly the best gravy I've ever tasted, straight from the kitchen's rotisserie grill. Smelling amazing and smooth, the Béarnaise and throat-tingling peppercorn sauces (£2.50) that we ordered on the side didn't stand a chance compared to this gravy.
Likewise, and proving to be the perfect partner to a huge 400g steak, the Brixham Hake was incredibly light and almost refreshing. Served with haricot beans and fennel, the highlight of the dish had to be the mussel and saffron stew that pooled around the plate. It was thin but still packed a punch, and really helped to balance out the strong flavour of the fresh hake. This dish is ideal for anyone hoping to avoid that all-too-familiar feeling of slipping into a food-induced coma after a massive meal.
Framing the entire meal was the great bottle of red wine. Now I'm not exactly an amateur when it comes to the grape, but with over 100 different bottles on offer, I was well out of depth. Luckily, the manager was on hand, recommending the medium-bodied Tabordet Sancerre 2015 (£39.50). Going down easily and offering fruity notes that linger at the back of your palate, it really surprised us by complementing both the steak and the fish.
In between jealous slurs, one of my colleagues pulled me aside and told me The Jugged Hare was the best food she'd eaten in a restaurant. And though I secretly rolled my eyes at the time, she wasn't far off. The venue's cosy, welcoming atmosphere greets everyone like a hug at the door and the food menu continues to add modern takes on traditional cuts of game. Sophisticated and sleek but somehow still managing to make its guests feel at home, The Jugged Hare can do no wrong in my eyes.