A former Discount Decorating shop, this fairly recent addition to Rye Lane is from the all-conquering south London pub group Antic.
Why the slightly cutesy name (which you’ll probably either love or hate)? Well apparently it’s inspired by the unicorn-loving daughter of one of the owners. Okaaay.
Step inside and it’s a surprising interior, full of back rooms, cosy corners and marble surfaces (as well as the inevitably exposed brickwork) in the ground floor lounge. It works.
Upstairs, the main dining area feels a little less confident: four different-sized, eclecticly furnished rooms offer a variety of seating, from high tables to banquettes, as if perhaps they’re not quite sure yet of the clientele.
Which is fair enough, as the new food menu has only been in place for four weeks. But, after our visit this week, we reckon it’s sure set to bed in fast with ex Opera Tavern’s senior sous chef Ben Mulock at the helm.
A quick glance at the simple menu reveals that everything is fairly priced, with bar snacks from £1.25 (a sage and onion sausage roll is just £1.50) to sharing plates from £3.
And on the drinks list, a signature Lovely Jubbly cocktail (£8) combined tart raspberry with a subtly vanilla vodka, quaffable prosecco and a slug of punchy French aperitif Lillet Blanc; and a bottle of versatile Portuguese house red came in at under £16.
Here are some of the best dishes we shared:
1. Cured sea trout, agretti, lemon oil (£6)Sometimes known as friar’s beard – or “land seaweed” in Japan – agretti instigates mini stampedes across Umbria as locals dash to get hold of bundles of the needle-shaped leaves in its short, early-summer window. Texturally and flavour-wise it hovers between samphire and asparagus; at John (as we’ll call the pub) it’s served with a most delicate beetroot-cured fish and just a hint of lemon and oil.
2. Pan-roasted guinea fowlArriving moreishly confit-style, with tender, gamey flesh under its crisp skin, this filling dish (£7) could be a plate for one, as well as a sharer. It’s matched with al dente braised puy lentils, the slightly bitter hit of crispy kale and smooth finish of mustard. A treat.
3. Charred leeksThis clocks in at a remarkable £4, and could also be a light meal in itself if you’re on a budget. Perfectly burnt alliums nestle on a gossamer-thin slice of toasted focaccia, with texture, moisture and crunch provided by toasted hazelnuts and pools of velvety red piquillo pepper sauce.
4. Burrata with tenderstem (£6.25)This Italian cheese is like a pimped-up mozzarella: it contains a ‘shell’ of the more famous Neapolitan cheese, but inside is a mix of mozzarella and cream, giving it an especially decadent, soft texture. It pairs incredibly well with a brassica, and comes with tenderstem broccoli and a seasonal wild garlic pesto (be quick as it’s gone by June).
5. Charred octopus (£9)The star dish, although being greedy fockers we would have liked a couple more of the perfectly juicy grilled tentacles. Still, the polite mound of crushed chickpeas offer bulk and a deep, earthy flavour, while capers and pickled peppers add notes of salty and sweet to a plate that you’ll probably order twice.
The dining room is open daily but closed on Mondays. Find John The Unicorn at 157-159 Rye Lane SE15. More info here