Despite all the great meals I had last year, as 2022 begins I can’t help remembering the one that got away. In early December, Zoë had a weekday free and we were going to take an off peak train to Oxford to chance our arm with a quiet, off peak lunch at one of my favourite places, the Magdalen Arms. Back when I was a student nearly three decades ago, the the pub was a bit of a dive bar but, crucially, it had American pool tables and so my friend Dave and I would occasionally slope off across Magdalen Bridge for a few frames there (I invariably lost: Dave never plays a game he knows he won’t win).
In the intervening years much of that end of Oxford has gentrified, so the Cowley Road now has a great tapas restaurant in the shape of Arbequina and a wonderful cafe called Peloton Espresso. And down the Iffley Road, just past the spot where Roger Bannister first broke the four minute mile, the Magdalen Arms has been transformed into a fantastic gastropub, part of a small group including the Anchor & Hope on The Cut, one of the longest-running and most fêted exponents of that genre. It has a great menu which bursts at the seams with temptation but the main reason to go there, as far as I’m concerned, is their pie.
It comes to the table in an enamel dish, suet crust pastry still bubbling, and whether the filling is beef or chicken, the end result is always ecstasy. It serves three hungry people or two lucky, greedy ones and it remains one of the finest things I’ve ever eaten in any pub or restaurant, anywhere. I generally agree with people who say that if a pie only has a pastry lid it’s really just a stew wearing a hat, but if anything can change my mind it’s the pie at the Magdalen Arms. That trip to Oxford was kiboshed by Zoë testing positive for Covid, so it wasn’t to be. But once her recovery was well under way we both agreed that we have some unfinished business with that pie.
The only pie that ever came close to the Magdalen Arms’ was one I had in the summer of 2019. I’d just been made redundant, in circumstances that meant I was in no hurry to get another job, and this being pre-Covid I had plenty of better things to do than looking for one. So I spent a very enjoyable afternoon wandering round Shoreditch, dipping in and out of design shops, drinking lattes in edgy cafés as if I belonged there, and after work I met up with Ian, a former colleague of mine who had also hopped on the Redundancy Express but only made it as far as an office near Old Street.
We stood outside the Bricklayers Arms, enjoying our pints in plastic glasses, congratulating one another on our escape and enjoying all the people-watching Hoxton has to offer on a summer evening. We got chatting to a chap who knew the area well and when we told him we hadn’t decided where to have dinner, he told us to make a pilgrimage to the Marksman, a pub fifteen minutes further out into Hackney. So we did, and in a midcentury modern-styled dining room above the pub I had one of the best meals I’d had in as long as I could remember.
I remember a crumpet smeared with salsa verde and topped with translucent strips of barely-cooked pancetta. There was Welsh rarebit on the dessert menu – because it was that kind of place – and I ordered it, because I’m that kind of person. But best of all was the pie, another enamel dish topped with a burnished crust, underneath it strand after strand of chicken thigh infused with tarragon. By the end of the meal I began to wonder whether I too could cope with commuting to a job in London, if the post-work gastronomic options were that good. It seemed to be suiting Ian nicely.
Two and a half years later, that meal crossed my mind again when I was on the website for Dishpatch, who offer heat at home meals from a variety of well-regarded London restaurants. Because lo and behold, there was a meal kit from the Marksman, the centrepiece of which was a pie. Not That Pie – this one was beef, rather than chicken, but a pie nonetheless. The winter was in full swing, Omicron was too and there are only so many times you can be slightly disappointed by a takeaway before you fancy a break, so I thought Fuck it and pulled the trigger on an order. It was that dead zone between Christmas and New Year, and I thought it would be nice to have something to look forward to in January.
I ordered the feature attraction with all the sides, extras and add-ons, which came to seventy-three pounds, not including shipping. More than a takeaway would cost, but potentially less than a meal in their restaurant might be. My only previous experience of reviewing a restaurant DIY kit, early in 2021, had been very hit and miss, but I thought it was time to give the concept another try. After all, eating in a restaurant still felt like a somewhat distant prospect.
The box arrived last Friday in the appointed slot, although DPD kindly delivered it to a house round the corner and we had to retrieve it from their recycling bin: nice to know that, even with a heat at home kit, there’s scope to struggle with the delivery experience. But Dishpatch were beyond reproach when it came to packaging : everything was packed with ice and insulated with the same Woolcool lining Clay’s uses for its heat at home option. It was all clearly labelled, well boxed up and vacuum-packed. A fancy-looking brochure gave you all the cooking instructions and, laudably, a separate sheet explained that all of the packaging was either recyclable or compostable.
The following night we opened a bottle of wine and set about cooking and demolishing as much of our order as possible. Again, you can’t fault Marksman for making it as easy as possible and the instructions for nearly all of it were the same – heat a baking tray to two hundred degrees, line it with parchment and cook each dish for however long it needs. And this reminded me of the edge heat at home options have over conventional takeaways – the opportunity to take your time and eat everything in an order, to experience starters, mains and desserts again without having to leave the house or scramble to eat it all before something gets cold.
First up we tried one of the extras, the truffle sausage roll. A mere twenty-five minutes in the oven and what came out was glorious – bronzed and beautiful, the sausagemeat coarse and herby. I thought the truffle in it was on the subtle side – more of a whisper than a honk – but I enjoyed it far too much to feel cheated. “That’s the best sausage roll I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict, and casting my mind back I struggled to think of one better, although the one I sampled last year from Wokingham’s Blue Orchid Bakery came a close second. That said, this one was eight pounds: I did find myself wishing I’d had the foresight to order two.
Our second starter – you’ve got to love heat at home kits for taking the shame out of ordering two starters – was an interesting beast. What looked like plain bread rolls were in fact milk buns crammed with curried lamb, served with a yoghurt dip. It’s billed as an Anglicised version of the char siu bun, although the more famous version served at the pub is beef and horseradish instead. I liked it, and it was definitely the most interesting thing I ate from the menu, but it still seemed a tad modest and unassuming. I expected some lacquer on the buns, perhaps, or more oomph from the filling. The best thing about it was the fantastic yoghurt dip, bursting with lime and a lick of salt, topped with crispy curry leaves – but would it have killed them to give you more of it? This cost twelve pounds, and although I enjoyed it it still felt like slightly too much for slightly too little.
I had a sinking feeling that the pie would underwhelm as I prepped it to go in the oven. For once it wasn’t about the faff of cooking it, because it couldn’t have been simpler: they provided you with an enamel dish, the pastry was ready-rolled and ready to drape on top, there was even a little sachet of eggwash to brush over the top. No, the problem was the filling. The pictures on Dishpatch’s website show the platonic ideal of a pie, the golden crust and the rich sauce underneath, a tangle of slow-cooked beef, broken up into fine ribbons, the sauce rich and sticky. Inside my vacuum-packed bag? Three – yes, I counted – dense nuggets of beef. That was it.
The Dishpatch website talks about the beef in some detail. “We keep the meat in big chunks when slow-braising so that they really hold the moisture”, says the co-founder. I can understand that, but you would think that in the process of making the filling they’d then shred the stuff so you reaped the benefits. Instead, there they were, floating in the sauce as if they’d been introduced to it literally at the last minute. Imagine a pie where each quarter contained a solitary piece of meat, and one quarter contained no meat at all. I don’t have to imagine it, because I ate it: it felt like a very expensive, not very impressive ready meal.
It was a real pity, because the sauce was delicious and you really got the rich softness of the onions in there (slow cooked in beef fat for over an hour, apparently). There was a beautiful savoury, salty note too that had me checking the list of ingredients for anchovies. But with no meat to bulk it up, it felt a bit watery. And the three bits of beef you did get weren’t “super succulent” (I’m quoting the Dishpatch website again), just dense and needing a fair bit of aggression with a knife and fork to break them up. I suppose you could describe them as big, but only in relative terms: one had a rich vein of unappealing fat in it, too. A bad pie, as I learned many years ago at Sweeney & Todd, is worse than no pie at all, because it’s a betrayal of the beautiful concept of pie itself. I’m afraid this was a bad pie.
I should also mention the cost. This was thirty-five pounds, and my only comparable experience of heat at home, really, is ordering vacuum-packed curries from Clay’s. For the money I spent on this pie and an accompanying pressed potato side dish, you could pick up two curries from Clay’s and two portions of rice and end the meal replete and enraptured. By my reckoning, you’d get twice as much food. Whether this means that Marksman is overpriced or Clay’s an absolute steal I’m not sure. Probably the latter, although the truth might be somewhere between the two.
The pressed potato side dish, by the way, was disappointing. That word again. The blurb sold it beautifully – thinly sliced potatoes layered, pressed and fried until crisp, what could possibly be bad about that? – and I was hoping it would be a heat at home equivalent of the legendary confit potato they serve at Quality Chop House in Farringdon. But it came out wan rather than crispy, and lacking in flavour. It didn’t help that it was drowned – literally and figuratively – by that sauce, the pie-filling-that-wasn’t-a-filling. In the course of researching this I discovered that Quality Chop House does its own heat at home option where a pie for two costs seventeen pounds: perhaps I should review them next.
That was all the meh I could take for one night, so we saved dessert for the following evening. Again, it sounded magical on paper – chocolate puddings with a salt toffee sauce and plenty of Jersey cream. Again, it was incredibly easy to cook. You just eased the puddings out of their foil cases and baked them in the oven with a dollop of the sauce on top while you heated the rest on the hob.
And again, they just came out badly. They sunk in the oven to flattened discs with an impregnable caramel perma-crust on top, sad parodies of the glossy pictures in the brochure. The sauce hadn’t thickened, so it pretty much had the same texture as the cream, and the end result was a chewy puck submerged in a lukewarm lake of something which combined the worst aspects of cream and a salt caramel sauce. Twelve pounds for something Gü, it pains me to say, does better. This is the one dish I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of: it just looked too forlorn.
The strange thing about this experience is that I can’t really fault Dishpatch. Unlike the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats they take responsibility for the food they sell, so after I filled out my survey they sent me a lovely email and gave me a partial refund. And their packaging and delivery was spot on: they run a very polished operation. The problem was with the food, and for once I can properly compare like with like, because I’ve eaten in the Marksman. My meal there a few years back was beautiful, but this was nowhere near the same quality for broadly the same cost. It’s like the joke that kicks off Annie Hall: “This food is terrible.” “I know, and such small portions.”
Of course, it isn’t really that simple. I know, rationally, that heat at home kits have different overheads to absorb: fancy packaging, vacuum-packing kit, training, the cost of a delivery supplier and so on. The problem DIY kits like this one have is that even though you know all that, on a gut level it still feels like you’re paying restaurant prices for a substandard home experience. Perhaps I haven’t found the right ones yet, Clay’s excepted.
On the plus side, it leaves plenty of room for improvement in 2022. But for now, my second brush with restaurant delivery kits left me feeling surprisingly appreciative of conventional takeaways, with all their wayward drivers drifting down the IDR away from my bloody house, all the timing issues, the lukewarm pizzas I’ve endured and all the other vicissitudes I grappled with last year. It left me feeling almost nostalgic, even. If nothing else, your disappointment is (a) instant and (b) cheaper. If I’m to have disappointments this year, and statistically it seems likely, I’d like them to be as instant, and as cheap, as possible. It’s not much of a mission statement, but the last couple of years have taught me to manage my expectations.
The Marksman at Dishpatch