Review: The Fox & Pheasant, Chelsea

The revived Fox & Pheasant in SW3 is charming and authentic, with excellent food and even better service, writes William Cash

The Fox & Pheasant pub is back. After years of being something of Chelsea’s Checkpoint Charlie pub for SW3 drinkers located in a posh no mans land between Chelsea and Fulham, the pub has been saved and transformed by singer-song writer James Blunt and his wife Sofia – former local residents of the Billings. Instead of the famous old local becoming another over-priced flat development, the new F & P has quickly become a hit, with James even pulling some pints of Cornish ale in this hidden away cul de sac.

James and his wife bought the 170 year old pub as they hated the idea of some developers turning their pretty mews street into another overpriced housing development.  Following a lengthy restoration, probably costing what you could have spent fixing up a wreck of a small stately home in the country, James was serving his first pints in July. He remains a local, albeit not living any more in the Billings. He and his wife now live in a larger townhouse down the road.

After a ‘soft’ opening, the word has quickly spread amongst locals and gastro-pub lovers across London:  it’s a Chelsea winner, partly thanks to it feeling like a family-run boutique pub and also thanks to James hiring one of London’s most experienced Chelsea pub managers, Toby Milne. Toby was trained by the legendary Alexander ‘Langy’ Langlands Pearse, now CEO of the Cirrus Inns group that own 28 of the best boutique pubs across England, including the White Horse in Chilgrove, Sussex, and the Admiral Codrington. Toby learnt the art of running a London pub (diplomacy skills include placating local ‘international’ residents from complaining about noise) at some of Chelsea’s best known watering holes. Langy describes his former protege Toby as ‘brilliant’.

There is an a la carte menu and a bar snack menu that is available all day. ‘Roasts run all day on a Sunday’ I am told, so there’s none of this ‘last orders by 2.30pm’ or ‘we’ve run out of the beef’ that you often get in the country. The pub has already become a fixture of the local Chelsea weekend scene.

The chicly sophisticated make-over has turned it  back into a classic English pub rather than trying to make it trendy, or turning it into another sawdust tapas bar.  I didn’t like to think about the renovation budget as I sat down in the glass ceilinged ‘conservatory’ but judging from the quality of the 18th century looking fishing print wallpaper in the new first floor Private Room – which can sit 24 – we can safely guess that none of the decorating was done at Oka or the local Lot’s Road auction house. The table (and the thin stemmed wine glasses for that matter ) in the private dining room would not look out of place in an officer’s mess. Only they probably wouldn’t serve purist designer water in glass bottles that is ‘filtered on site’ and boasts ‘no food miles’. Half of what they pay for their water is donated to the Blue Marine Foundation.

The attention to detail is meticulous down to the proper wooden ground pepper pots, wonderfully old fashioned club-style gents lavatories that look is if they have been there since the 1930s, or else snitched from the Guards Polo Club. There’s more brass than on a 1930s cruise ship. Somebody is going to have to buy a lot of Brasso to make the place look smart but I’m glad they have gone down the brass polish route. Who doesn’t love the smell of brass polish and that re-assuring shade of green the brass corners turn on the edges after a decade of polishing ?

These days many people want a town pub that is almost like a hybrid Range Rover. As you sip your Provence rose, or Pol Roger, Cuvee Winston Churchill, you feel as if you could be by a river in Sussex or Oxfordshire. Only you are actually just a few hundreds years from the baying fans at Chelsea Football ground.

Like James’s music, the Fox & Pheasant is rather a genre-defying pub. Part of its charm is that you can’t place it. It’s too easily comfortable but smart  (down to the chrome plated Art Deco cocktail shakers on the bar) to be another London gastro-pub; too sophisticated to be just a local boozer. The food too good to be described as Chelsea pub grub. The management and service simply too professional – the smiles bright, the teeth white and the tattoos too discreet – for you not to want to book in for Sunday lunch for several repetitive weeks in advance like some serial Sunday lunch addict, or worse pop stalker.

After I made my reservation, I got an email confirmation for ‘Mr Cash’. As soon as it pinged into my email box, I began to feel that I could expect something special. It could have been from the Ivy or Claridge’s – certainly not a touch you expected from a local Chelsea boozer. Also, I expect the reservation system is such that if you happen not to be a ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr’, and perhaps a little grander, their system can cope as opposed to you being described as ‘Ms’ or ‘Other’. I liked the formality.

Annabel’s was made famous by Mark Birley for pioneering the Mayfair Country House style. James and Sofia have succeeded in creating something that can be called the ‘Chelsea Country Pub’ style. The best touches include the fitting of new leaded windows, hand made leather studded dining chairs, a Wimbledon-style removable garden atrium glass roof, chic banquettes that look as if they have been upholstered with green Connolly leather stripped off a dozen pre-war Bentleys and a new main ‘English bar’ that feels like you have walked into a St James’s club. The country style gastro-menu feels a hundred miles from Fulham with a classic menu of sophisticated and delicious but unfussy food. I can recommend the pork loin with black pudding and potato terrine and fennel choucroute. The chocolate fondant and vanilla ice cream is also worth the wait.

Did somebody say choucroute? I’ve been reviewing restaurants for Spear’s for well over a decade and have never come across that word in any restaurant menu – from Monaco to Moscow – let alone in a pub. I loved the home-made houmous dip served in little copper mini-buckets with snappy fresh carrots, mange tout and celery; the fresh pine dining tables in the garden room that lift the room, the stylish silver cutlery by Robert Welch, the overhead ‘industrial’ pendants that give the garden restaurant an artisan Chelsea feel and the potted orange trees that smell like some exotic botanical garden in a restaurant in Ibiza. Even the lustrous evergreen tree in the centre looks real. The food was first class, as good as any other of the established gastro-restaurant-pubs in London from the Enterprise to the Punch Bowl in Mayfair. And they’ve only been open a month or so.

Then there’s the drinks – or the ‘wet stuff’ as its called in the pub trade. You can always tell the quality of a pub by its house ale and wines. You may be in the no man’s land between Chelsea and Fulham but the pub’s Tribute Cornish Ale, ‘Fox n ‘ Fez’ lager and Cote Breton Cidre make sure you really don’t know where on earth you are. Certainly after a few pints or draining one of the very expensive Bordeaux magnums I spied decorating the wall of the garden. You can see that somebody has been enjoying themselves with the cellar stocking and tasting duties. The house white (Chenin Blanc from South Africa) is one of the best house wines of any pub I’ve been to. The philosophy seems to be: don’t rip off the customer with a carafe of red petrol mix. It’s not worth it. If they like the house stuff then next time they’ll treat themselves to something more exotically priced.

The cocktail list indicates somebody knows their way around a cocktail shaker. There are not many bars, let alone pubs, that can do a proper Bellini, made from Northern Italy prosecco (not champagne) and peach puree; and a Negroni or an Espresso Martini – the cocktail equivalent of a loaded revolver – and a Dark & Stormy (dark rum, angostura bitters, fresh lime and ginger beer) would not disgrace Puff Daddy’s yacht in St Barths. You could go there for a cocktail crawl alone.

The pub dates back to 1846 when it was the Bedford Arms. Then it was Prince of Wales and in 1965 became The Fox & Pheasant. According to Blunt and his wife Sofia, there will be no more ‘name changing’. The pub has three fire places, a dartboard and even dog biscuits for ‘well behaved’ dogs. Although I noticed some swanky discreet speakers hidden in the garden walls, the only thing I didn’t see was a ‘live’ singing area, or stage.  I am told that the chances of James singing to Sunday roast punters are ‘remote’. Still, after two bottles of Cuvee Winston Churchill champagne, you could always ask.

William Cash is founder and editor-at-large at Spear’s