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01 January 2007

The Magdala

It first dawned on me when I tried to read the menu through the dirty glass.  It then hit me like a thunderbolt as I ate the warm bread, flecked with onions and dipped in home-made herby olive oil: I rarely eat anywhere by chance. Wherever I am in the world, I make sure I know the good places to eat.  I don't mean just those recommended by Michelin, I mean the places where I know I will get some decent nosh.  That is particularly true for London, my city.   I was therefore surprised to end up having an excellent lunch today in a pub that at best looks grotty from the outside, that I pass fairly frequently and that I had never heard of.

I had strong-armed Silverbrowess into a trek across Hampstead Heath, following a weekend of eating, drinking and CSI watching.  So it was that we were in South Hampstead (that nether region near The Royal Free Hospital), and nowhere was open.  If I am honest, one of the reasons we took the route across the Heath that we did, was because I was salivating at the prospect of a pizza at Fratelli la Bufala, having watched Heston Blumenthal make the perfect pizza (you have got to love Sky+).  I was therefore disappointed FlB was shut, along with virtually all the other cafes and restaurants.  Somewhat dejected, we set out back across the Heath in a vain attempt to get a table at Kalendar.  Just before we strode forth onto Parliament Hill, Silverbrowess pointed out the aforementioned grotty looking pub and suggested we at least take a look.  I thought I should humour her and so went to investigate further.

The menu was tough to read given the filth encrusting the display the case.  But from what we could make out it looked interesting.  I particularly liked the look of the roast vegetable stew with cheese dumplings.  It is rare that such effort is put into veggie dishes.  So we went in and it soon became evident that effort is a watch-word here.

The bread was the clearest example of this.  We tasted a couple of different breads thanks to the speed with which we demolished each basket.  The first, was a white bloomer, with sweet, crispy onions sunk into the thick, crunchy crust.  The bread itself was pillowy soft.  This was good bread.  The next basket was more sour than the first.  It think it had some apple juice in it.  The crust was just as thick as the onion loaf and was crunchy enough to give the gnashers a work out, again very good.

I noticed that every so often the chef would put a hot loaf down onto the pass and it would be sliced by the waitress and served immediately.  There is an adage that you can tell the quality of a restaurant by the quality of its bread.  Although many such culinary adages are downright lies (just because locals eat in a place it doesn't mean its good, they might have bad taste) this one held at The Magdala.  You know that if a chef cares enough to be bothered to bake loaves of bread on New Year's Day, then he really does give a toss what he serves you.

We both ended up having what could have been dull omelettes, the veggie stew was not on the truncated New Year's Day menu unfortunately.  Instead I got a perfectly cooked (not too dry, not too wet) exemplar, oozing with salty stilton and earthy mushrooms.  Silverbrowess had a similarly good cheese and tomato.  The chips were clearly not out of a packet, although I reckon they only had a single fry, not the double fry that is essential for good chip.  As an aside, this is yet another example of where my grandmother was right on something.  If The Magdala's chips were fried twice, they were not cooked for long enough, as both Silverbrowess and me had chips that were not cooked through.  Usually this would be a heinous crime.  Today, given my New Year's good humour and ongoing delight at finding this gem, I overlooked it.  Our meal was not rocket science, but all it takes is to do the simple things right and the punters will be happy.

The realisation that my dining out can be so formulaic was a bit depressing.  However, I think it bodes well that I found somewhere like this on the first day of the New Year.

Then again, this pub has its own notorious place in history.  It was the scene of the crime that sent Ruth Ellis to the gallows.  She was the last female executed in the UK.

Happy New Year everyone.

The Magdala, 2a South Hill, London, NW3 2SB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7435 2503

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What others think

As far as I can tell, nothing has been written about this place.  If that changes, I will let you know.

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Happy New Year to you! And it's nice to hear that the food here is good - I have been there but only for a restorative drink at the end of a long ramble/pub crawl through and around Hampstead Heath last year. Will have to do another of those soon I think!

Thanks Jeanne, and to you too. It's perfect for a post Heath stroll.

I'm so glad I found your blog. Reviews like this are perfect as we are traveling to London in March with our 2 sons and I always like to be well informed about where to eat (I usually have an eating itinerary). Thanks and keep the reviews coming.

Vanessa - my pleasure. If you need any other recommendations feel free to email me. Or, if you look under categories you can see my views on a number of restaurants in the UK and elsewhere.

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