When I was a naive and tedious youth, a good friend who was a little older and a whole lot wiser used to speak of TWOT nights. Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday: the three weeknights during which Londoners had to go out at least once, to embrace the city, to explore or revisit or otherwise engage. Else you might as well move to Whitstable – which my friend did, many years later.
Mondays are sacred. Fair enough. The weekend was too big, the nights’ sleep too short. The Sunday papers bought with every good intention rest unbothered in the corner. And Fridays, well, it’s no more a weeknight than Sunday night is the weekend.
Which leaves us with TWOT. So easy to complete in our youth; so easy to forego in our middle age. Warm thanks, then, for a good local restaurant, which indulge us comfortably when we come home to find ourselves unenthused by the fridge and unimpassioned by the corner cupboard.
Prawn On The Lawn was one such place. An unprepossessing joint offering a small selection of reasonable fish in an unreasonably fishy part of Balls Pond Road. Friendly, affordable, relaxed. The only problem was that it was tiny, so we’d have to put our names down and then idle in the pub to return after too many pints. And the experience so good we’d have to rattle through a number of reasonably priced wines to salute it.
This problem was offset by an inexplicable twist of algorithm that saw POTL hit second spot on Tripadvisor. An untrustworthy guide, to be sure, but in this case hilarious. Lost, intrepid, expectant East Asian tourists trudged the road away from Highbury & Islington to find this humble establishment that, frankly, has a lot to be humble about. The things that make a good local great are are insufficient to justify travel – that’s the whole point.
We noted POTL had moved, to replace a chicken shop of noble intention and terrible execution that reeked so much of failure that I never breached its doorway. This new place was bigger. It had what seemed to be a fully functioning kitchen and a licence to go with – so no more cooking in the toaster. The fish on display arched and glistened with redness of gill and brightness of eye.
I had wanted to go to Black Axe Mangal, fully 30 strides away, but the crowd swung it in favour of the fish.
As soon as we stepped inside, the whiff of naive youth stank out the nose. Friendly, well-meaning, dirty-shoed innocents contorted themselves earnestly across each other, around menus, over tables. There was no collective knowledge, no machine, no clockwork.
Individually charmingly and collectively impossible, it was hard to dislike the people til you judged them by what they were there to do. The prices weren’t so low that they had to staff the joint entirely with those salvaged from the gig economy.
We were explained the idea of the menu. Three times. Each time cutely, each time painfully. It didn’t improve with repetition.
The wine came after fifteen minutes. It takes me about five seconds to uncork a bottle once I’ve latched my front door, and I am assured you no one goes to the local on a weeknight for the suspense.
The thin, attractive, smily and unskilled waitress tore off the foil from the bottle, eschewing the cutter she unwittingly clasped in her hand. She served it, with a swoosh, and I felt for the fatty chardonnay as it cut itself on the shards of metal that garnished the bottle top like shrapnel.
The food was largely good, and the variable quality gave the meal some entertainment. The oysters looked like they could have been spat into the shells by an emphysemic vagrant, and too small to offer much to the evening. The seafood stew saw two pert scallops in the shell perched confidently over rich, well seasoned mussels and clams – a dish that brought moments of true happiness. A thick, small, deftly grilled section of brill for £9 was genuinely exciting – there aren’t places that will be so generous and amenable in London.
In a country that does limited fish and nearly impossible shellfish, I wish POTL well.The original owner, Rick Toogood, held the original place together very charmingly, but gave up on the TWOT rule and set up POTL 2 in Cornwall, but the urban option has retained enough charm to rustle up a very creditable weeknight meal. Now if only they could sort out the service.
Prawn On The Lawn 292 - 294 St Paul's Rd, London N1 2LL