“If you build it, he will come.” So goes the often misquoted line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, to which I’d say this: you might well be right, but just in case, don’t build it anywhere that requires people to get on the Bakerloo line.
Which introduces my write-up of The Royal Oak in Harlesden, a Victorian pub on a confusing four-way junction that serves up one of the best roasts in London… to practically no one. Seriously, if you go early there’s a good chance you’ll be the only one in there.
Its position on the slowest, most day-ruining line is just one of the obstacles facing the new manager, Jim, who had time during our visit to come over with a large bowl of water for the dogs because, well, we’d gone early*.
Another difficulty is specific to Harlesden, which by the 2011 census has a population that is 67% BAME, including a significant number identifying as Afro-Caribbean. Usually a local pub is the place to gather, where women can escape their husbands and older gentlemen can come to complain about the other local pub, but anyone who has spent time in this pocket of north-west London (I lived in Harlesden for five years) will know that many people here like to socialise on the high street, spilling from the cafes and takeaways, congregating in regular spots on the pavement, creating an energy few pubs can match these days.
Which is all well and good unless you’re Jim, or his chefs Felix and Ben, who’ve been perfecting their Sunday lunch for five years now and must be at the point where they’re sniffing their armpits and wondering if it’s them.
To explain why this roast is so good, we have to go back in time, all the way to Wednesday, which is when Felix and Ben start making the gravy. (Jim had plenty of time to answer questions. It was 12.45pm and there were still only two other people in there, one of whom was Shaun ‘The Dark Destroyer’ Wallace from The Chase, who’d popped his head round the door to ask if they do a roast.)
So, the gravy. Everything is thrown into a pan, all the bits of meat and vegetables that only dogs and vegans respectively eat, and there it simmers, around the clock, being added to and strained once a day.
You know the type of gravy your mum makes that you want to mop up with bread? That’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s far too rich for that, a black hole of umami that draws together everything on the plate.
The beef comes bright, the lamb shoulder falls apart with a little pull of a fork, the roasties are what roasties should be and the Yorkshire puddings are hefty without tasting like an origami napkin. All of these things are nice but they become exceptional in the shiny pool of blessing in which they are served.
I’m convinced that if The Royal Oak was in Shoreditch, or even a postcode away in Kensal Rise, there would be people queuing down the street on a Sunday lunchtime. I said so to my girlfriend but she had zoned out around the bit about the 2011 census. 9.5/10
*Life advice: always go early for a roast – there isn’t a chef alive who can make a roast potato taste as good four hours after it was ready