I arrive at The Marksman ahead of schedule, despite a slow stroll up and down Hackney Road. There are a lot of brilliant food and drink operations dotted around this part of east London – if you’re ever in the area, you can choose from prized places such as Sager + Wilde, Morito and The Laughing Heart. Nestled unassumingly at the end of Columbia Road is Stingray Globe Café, a simple, thin-crust pizza place that I’ve admired for years, which is also incredible value for money. It’s all rather great.
But, yes, even after nosing around the front windows of all of these places, I still walk through the doors of Michelin’s Pub of the Year 2017 a good half an hour earlier than planned. I’m booked in for dinner, but also for a pre-dining chat with chef owners Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram. The duo are about to open up a new grab-and-go concept called bunshop, which will serve The Marksman’s fame-filled buns from a site in Market Halls next to Victoria station – they’re understandably keen to spread the word. But what my early arrival allowed for was one of the most entertaining accidental eavesdropping moments I’ve had in a long while. The Marksman, you see, is split into two levels – upstairs is a homely, stripped-back-style dining room where Harris and Rotheram’s incredible dishes are devoured by foodies all year round; downstairs, simply put, is an east-end pub. It’s a boozer. A battle cruiser. A place where the beer-drinking loyalists have been putting the world to rights long before these two chefs showed up. A place where every other word from this particular crowd was either ‘%*!$’ or ‘!!’ while trying to explain the precise role of West Ham’s wingbacks. It was both brilliant and refreshing. Too often a change of pub operation/style will alienate and drive away previously loyal customers, despite an operator insisting it won’t. Harris and Rotheram are currently running a traditional pub and a high-end eatery, and simultaneously attracting a variety of customers – it’s on-trade yin and yang at its finest.
After chatting to the duo over a pint of lager, courtesy of Brick Lane Brewing Co, we headed upstairs for dinner, leaving the bustle of the boozer below. The separation of pub and dining room is not too dissimilar to Michelin’s Pub of the Year 2018, The Pointer in Brill. That too keeps wet-led pub affairs on the ground floor, with a raised dining experience just a flight of stairs away. Saying that, I’m not sure the bar chat would be quite as expletive in the depths of leafy Buckinghamshire as it is here in east London.
Once seated, I gave one of the pub’s aperitifs a try – Cocchi Rosa, soda and lemon. It was probably more suited to a summer afternoon social, but was delicious nonetheless. My companion stuck with Brick Lane’s lager, which was a wiser decision when taking the appetisers into account. As we had discussed The Marksman’s famous buns so much already, it seemed almost obligatory to kick things off with these soft bundles of joy. For £5, this trademark appetiser arrives stuffed with beef and barley, served with a side of horseradish for dipping. Outrageously moreish. I’ll be first in line to try the other fillings as soon as the Market Halls site is open.
Our waitress gave such a passionate, detailed description of the sand carrots, flax seeds and salt lemon (£7) that to not order them would have been a waste of staff knowledge and training. Apparently the sandy soil in which they’re grown gives the carrots a perfect drainage, resulting in almost no core and a deep, vibrant flavour. They were delicious. As was the girolles and cured Tamworth on toast (£9). Our starters were complemented with a couple of glasses of Loxarel – Cora 2017, a Xarel lo/Muscat from Catalonia.
Had we not been there under a professional (i.e. try as much as humanly possible for the good of the review) capacity, then I imagine we would have taken on the Hereford T-bone, fried potato and anchovy, which is £65 for two people. However, professionals as we are, two main courses from land and sea were decided upon. My companion seemed delighted with his brill, mussels and sea beet main (£21), while my beef shin fell apart as easily as Mrs May’s latest proposal to Brussels. The beef (£18) was served with celeriac and turnip tops, but we also propped up the mains with a side of buttered cabbage (£5) and some fried potatoes, which came with an angelic caper mayonnaise. More of that with everything, please.
Our wonderful waitress soon returned and practically ordered us to order The Marksman’s brown butter and honey tart (£8). She informed us that this too was a bit of a trademark dish that wasn’t to be missed. How right she was. The whole experience reduced us to communicate in nothing more than agreeable groans and elongated vowels. There was nothing else to be said. As we made our way back downstairs and towards the exit, I mentioned to general manager Andrew just how good the dessert was. “With the amount of butter in that thing,” he replied, “it @**!ing well should be.” What a beautifully befitting way to depart from one of the best boozers in town.