I have never been in a prison communal area, though I imagine one to look very similar to the dining room at The Merry Maid. The false ceiling is low and holds in the monotone coverage of the Sky Sports from the mounted plasma screen. A heavily chipped wall shows the quality of darts played here in yesteryear, whilst locals compete at pool from the other end. It’s not the place I would feel comfortable about my girlfriend coming without me. And that has nothing to do with the pub, its dubious location in Highgate, or its subsequent locals. I just don’t want her getting better than me at pool.
But, occasionally, it makes no difference whether the dining room looks like a prison communal or a Venetian palace. Sometimes the food is so good that word-of-mouth takes over and you find yourself in the vast corners of society to get a fill, like in Highgate, where even the stray dogs walk around in pairs. And here, on a damp Tuesday evening, the dining room is packed with those in the know, willing to make the pilgrimage.
The short menu has a few curries, from which we tried two: A butter chicken was an artery thickening joy, which made me wonder why anyone looking towards the milder side would choose a tikki masala over this, and a chicken kahari, a pungent thing of beauty, punctured with plenty of fresh green chillies. Both were keenly spiced, offering levels of flavouring above your standard curry fare. The accompanying peshwari naans were supple and avoided cloying sweetness.
It’s not the curries that are the main attraction here, as testified by 90% of the dining/pool room. They come here for the meat; marinated, impaled, and plunged into a seriously hot tandoor. The result is a charred meat, full of meaty flavour and as tender as a newly singleton. All of it; the tikka chicken breast and wings, the shish kebab, the lamb chops, are simply impeccable. Eight pound for the small mixed grill is enough to feed three. Eleven quid will get you the large portion sufficient for a table to feast on. Little wonder they are always full.
It’s hard to take in that the best tandoor cooking I have tried is a few miles from my door, and harder to accept that I have taken so long to find it. I don’t care that my beer choice is limited to the piss poor Carlsberg or Stella, or that the food is served on kitchen tissue. For once I don’t care for which farm my chicken comes from, or what grass my lamb is eating. The food here makes everything irrelevant when it arrives at the table. Others have been eating here for a while knowing this. I cant wait to join them again.