Sunday 1 November 2009

The Pipe of Port - Southend

Southend in Essex is famous for a couple of things, the worlds longest pleasure pier (and the subsequent disasters that seem to regularly befall it), and the beaches, which every summer play host to the dog eared and sadly faded Victorian glamour that only a day at a British seaside resort can provide. What Southend regrettably is not famous for, is it's food. In fact, for a town of it's size, with it's proximity to the sea and the availability of fresh seafood, the choice and quality on offer is shocking...I'd even go as far to say, abysmal. I'd seriously struggle to recommend anywhere decent to eat if I was asked.

But, here and there, among the sheer endless, turgid, characterless, greyness provided by the nationwide restaurant and pub chains which seem to have a complete monopoly on many a British high Street nowadays, the odd beacon of hope glimmers. In Southend, adrift on a life-raft, riding this sea of banality is The Pipe of Port.

Something of a Southend Institution, this wine bar/restaurant first opened it's doors in 1976. Located just off the high street and down a flight of stairs this dark, wood panelled, flickering candlelit, sawdust on flagstones cellar bar is surprisingly atmospheric, cultivating the almost Dickensian image of a Georgian style chop house with it's dark, snug, booths, and bench type seating.

The food, not deviating from the image presented by the interior, is described by Harden's as "English Traditional Rustic" which is fine by me. In fact, I was there to sample a particularly traditional type of English dish that the Pipe of Port is rightly famous for.... the Pie.

Mention the Pipe of Port to anyone who's eaten there, and they'll mention the homemade pies. They're so famous in fact, that they're now being produced and sold in Delicatessens for cooking and serving up at home (Although, these pies may contain the same fillings and perhaps even the same pastry I strongly suspect they just cannot compare in sheer girth to the whopping pies that are served up in the basement wine bar - accept no substitute).

With all this in mind, visiting Saturday lunchtime, I surveyed the short but tempting selection of "celebrated pies" The GF opting for the "very large" (as helpfully described by the menu) steak, kidney and mushroom pie. I went for the "equally large" chicken and chestnut pie. These were priced at £9-35 each, both coming with a choice of boiled, sauteed or baked potatoes. (The remaining choice of pies on the menu being 'pork, plum and Celery', 'vegetarian' or a 'Trawler Pie under creamy mash, topped with cheese').

The pies when they arrived were something to behold deposited on the table with side portions of boiled potatoes, huge steaming pie dishes completed, in the case of my chicken and chestnut pie with a towering flaky crust lid. The GF's steak and kidney pie was topped with some very nice shortcrust pasty. A gorgeous, rich, strong, meat and aromatic sage smell wafted from the pies into the void between us across the table.

I broke through the golden lid to be confronted by the steaming chicken and chestnut filling, the aroma was amazing. Digging deep into the gravy filled well for a forkful, I exclaimed to my partner in Pie "Look at the size of that" spearing a huge chunk of chicken glistening and dripping, holding it aloft for brief inspection before shoving it into my mouth. Seriously good, rich and tasty - down the years I've eaten my fair share of pies and this before me was a shining example of the pie makers skill.
Across the table my GF was busy demolishing her Steak, Kidney and Mushroom pie and - obviously.... I had to have a try. It was equally impressive, thick gravy, pungent with the smell of Sage, large chunks of soft steak and kidney with a beautiful shortcrust pastry. Again, outstanding.

Between the two of us, we managed to eat both pies and accompanying potatoes - but only just. The sheer size of these pies have to be seen to be appreciated. It's a serious exercise in lunchtime eating to finish one.

Bill paid, we staggered happily, full and heavy up the stairs from the subterranean cellars into another world, squinting, and shielding our eyes momentarily in the bright October sunlit afternoon.

The Pipe of Port is rightly famous for it's excellent pies. I think It's fantastic to see an independent Wine Bar/Restaurant/Producer in Southend excelling at the food it produces (Utopia Cafe for it's incredible coffee is another), I wish there were more like them. Southend (and in fact Britain as a whole) needs more great quality independent restaurants and pubs to take on the chains which, are slowly sucking the life and character out of the British high street... methodically
replacing what was once interesting with bland, identikit and soulless.
Vote with your feet.

The Pipe of Port

84 High Street

Telephone: 01702 614606


Merlotti said...

what can I say but...mmm...pies :)

Kavey said...

They look like fine pies!

It seems impossible to find pies that have a complete pastry case, rather than just a lid. But these look nice anyway!

LexEat! said...

Hats off to the GF! Finishing that pie off showed some serious commitment!

Anonymous said...

I have discovered the 'pie tradition' when I moved to the UK and since then, I'm in love with it. I had a chicken and leek pie on Saturday night in a pub, great one. And pubs are for me the best place to enjoy a pie. It comes with the atmosphere!

Dan said...

Merlotti - aha - yes mmmm Pies indeed.

Kavey - They are fine pies indeed. I know what you mean, no one seems to go for the complete pastry case anymore.

Lex, hah - The GF, yeah agreed, she may be small but can power through grub like a machine when called upon. (She's going to love me saying that...not).

Mathilde - agreed, a good Pie in nice old atmospheric pub, hard to beat.

Browners said...

The "pies the limit". I can't remember the last time I had a proper pie. But you've inspired me to go in search... or better still make one myself. Well done Southend!

Alex said...

I did game and mushroom pie last night. Nothing beats plunging into the pastry and letting steam and scent escape... mmmm.

The Ample Cook said...

You couldn't have described either the venue or the pies any better Dan, and I should know because we've been going to this place for years.

You've summed up Southend very well. We have quantity of restaurants, but very little quality. The more 'up market' places in our locality charge London prices but fall very short on the food they serve.

By the way, in their latest newsletter, on the subject of tips - they do, and always have, given their staff (including kitchen staff)100% of the tips left by customer, no matter what method has been used to pay. And if any of the 3 owners waitress, they don't take a share themselves. I would say that's pretty rare.

Really good review Mr Eating.

The Ample Cook said...

ps. If you think their pies are good - you should try mine ;o)

catty said...

We haven't travelled much around England itself (been either stuck in London, or heading over to Europe) but my bf and I are thinking of taking some time off, hiring and car and just driving around. If I ever head Essex way, you know I'm gonna hit you up for some foodie suggestions. These pies look AMAZING and will definitely be on the list :)

Dan said...

Browners - glad to see my 'pies I have known and eaten' post has inspired you to make your own - or seek out other worthy contenders.

Alex - agree with you on that!

Jan - thanks for your comments, it was you who inspired me to visit for lunch as you mentioned the Pipe of Port whilst we were chatting in the morning. I think you've hit the nail on the head - what I want to see from a good restuarant is integrity, great seasonal and if possible local produce cooked well. There seems to be a real lack of this in Southend despite having great ingredients a stones throw away. It's a real shame.
Your Pies are better? - well now you've said it, I'll have to sample one eh?

Catty - I spend a lot of my time in London and end up mostly writing about eating experiences I have there. I try to fit in local places in Essex as much as possible when I can. If you end up heading this direction I can certainly suggest some cracking foodie places to try and places to visit.

Food Urchin said...

Try saying "fancy going to Sarfend for a Pipe of Port Pie?" and people will think you've got a stutter. But I commend you for reviewing places outside of the big smoke fella, will have to try this place.

You're going to The Bell, Horndon on the Hill soon aren't you? You're in for a treat

Helen said...

Hurrah for pie! Not enough love flowing around for the pie in my opinion, particularly amongst the ladeeez. Something to do with being fattening or whatever. Glad to hear your girlfriend doesn't go in for any of that rubbish.

Hollow Legs said...

I first read the price as £3.95 and was agog. A pub near my work, The Newman Arms, does similarly impressive pies. I have to say I am more of a puff pastry girl, due to having eaten too much shortcrusted pie when I was 7 and er... being a bit unwell.