Cheap, Tasty and Plenty of Karma

Daniel Nicholas enjoys modern pub grub as it should be at JB Bar and Diner

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Pub grub has gone through an amazing transformation: from pickled onions and pork scratchings, through ploughman’s lunches and scampi-in-a-basket to posh nosh gastropubs. Now, according to The Good Pub Guide 2008, the average for a two-course pub lunch + glass of wine is £20 a head. Overpriced to bump up income since the smoking ban according to the Guide.

The once self-proclaimed ‘World Famous John Bull’ in the High Road opposite Gunnersbury station has also been through a transformation since its heyday as a rock music pub. When it emerged recently as the JB Bar and Diner, it did not call itself a gastropub or trail a celeb chef. Instead it describes itself as ‘Instant Karma – a good place to chill’, an intriguing nice mix of hippiedom and post-millennial cool.

Back in the days when the John Bull was rocking, food wasn’t a prime reason for going to a pub. It was good enough as long as the grub was cheap, cheerful and capable of soaking by the booze. In the light of the good Pub Guide criticism, I wondered if JB’s karma could offer a tastier modern version of the old favourites. And the missus and I were more than pleasantly surprised by what we found. (Reader be warned: this review is not about gourmet eating and drinking. There are enough of those elsewhere - this is about finding a pleasant basic pub meal.)

There is a vast space to the left of the bar as you enter JB. This was once filled with rock, blues and heavy metal sounds wrapped round the sweaty crowds filling every nook and cranny. Now it seems airy and cool. The decor is a pleasant, individualistic mix of modern design bits and pieces. Smaller semi-enclosed spaces have been created within the big room, breaking up what could otherwise be an overwhelming space.

At the far end, by the great-in-the-summer garden, there are soft sofas and a giant screen (with a number of large and small screens throughout the pub). On the night we went, they were showing MTV-type videos. In some parts the sound is loud enough for those who can’t do without noise. Elsewhere it is quieter.

We chose the quietest area: the smaller bar to the right. The sofas in one corner signaled the 21st century, although the one we sat in seemed to have lost its base, as we sunk into its depths. The chunky pale wood tables and chairs echo a 1960s country bistro. And the neatly tied-back curtains on the windows, with their swirly glass panels, suggest something homely from the Victorian era when the pub was built.

The menu is brief but interesting, including some unexpected offerings like salt beef (salad or baguettes). Reassuringly, the usual suspects are also there – burger, sausage, pasta, curry. A modern touch is thoughtfulness towards vegetarians. Prices for mains are typically in the £5 to £6 range, well below the averages quoted by the Good Pub Guide. Lamb shank and rib-eye steak are among the most expensive in the £9 to £10 range. Main courses include potato wedges, mash, salad and other sidelines.

The range of salads look particularly good for a pub, including crayfish, smoked salmon and avocado as well as salt beef. There is also a selection of baguettes, paninis and other odds and ends. Snack or gorge as the karma takes you.

Ordering is at the bar. We went to extremes for main courses: a burger called a ‘F.t’ (sic) and veggie sausages and mash. The censored burger name seemed endearingly daring in a place that uses the word karma in its marketing. We also had a Greek salad.

While we waited for the food, the softly dry house sauvignon red slipped down well. Perhaps because we are wrinklier than the younger target audience, we were even asked if the MTVish music from a large screen was too loud - which it wasn’t. This was typical of the friendly and efficient service.

When the food arrived, it was love at first sight. Huge portions, which is the first box that pub grub must tickle. The Greek salad had juicy chunks of feta, with generous portions of olives and red onion and tomato slices. The Fat B was indeed fat in size, but moistly meaty rather than fatty. It came with tasty, squidgy potato wedges and shredded lettuce with basic condiments. Four veggie sausages circled a heap of mashed (not pureed) potato, soaked in gravy and with chunks of nicely cooked carrot and swede on the side. The sausages were probably soya protein, but scrumptiously flavoured.

Not everything was perfect - how could it be at these prices. The burger bun was dull and the orange cheese slice in plastic wrapper unnecessarily lowered the tone to the level. The beef was fine on its own, without the seemingly tasteless added cholesterol.

That was a minor glitch. We didn’t expect gourmet standards, just an enjoyable reasonably priced meal and drink in a pleasant environment. And that is what we got in abundance, at a total of about £28 including two large glasses of wine and two cokes (plus two sausages in a doggy bag for lunch the next day).

Other than a Theakston’s bitter, the draught booze is mainly lagers, including a Kronenberg blanc. That won’t please real ale buffs but, judging by the number of people in both bars, the reborn JB seems to be beginning to attract a strong new following. We will certainly join that.

But next time we will cut back on the mains to leave room for the tempting chilli pavlova, which was one of three sweets on offer. Being filled to the brim by such tasty food in a relaxed atmosphere – and without having to fork out higher Chiswick eating-out prices – is an example of the best of today’s pub life. Maybe not world famous, but pretty good as a local.

Daniel Nicholas

October 24, 2007