Date: November 12th.
Place: West London.
It was a cool, crisp morning. The streets were clear and quiet. Suddenly, a solitary figure swiftly slunk out of Notting Hill Gate station. It snuck along Pembridge Gardens, before snipping over Pembridge Square. It then snaked its way up Moscow road, eventually stumbling onto Ossington Street. It stopped. It looked left. It looked right. It looked lost. From around the corner, someone else approached. The isolated soul stared at him. He slowly turned, starting towards the stranger. Soon they were face-to-face…
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ I enquired, ‘where is Hereford Road, the restaurant?’ ‘Oh, right there,’ he pointed just a stone’s throw further up the road we were already on, before abruptly adding ‘and it’s great!’ I thanked him and carried on, surprised at the out-of-the-blue outburst yet smiling because of it; what a ringing endorsement I thought to myself.
‘OK…but why the cloak-and-dagger, hole-and-corner, huggermuggery preamble?’ you all must be thinking to yourselves, or at least something similar if not exactly that. Well, some friends from overseas have asked whether I might taste a restaurant for them prior to their impending arrival and, what with the recent release of the latest Bond flick, it appears I have let 007 fever get the better of me.
So, what with the parfait already set, as it were, why stop now? Secret Agent Food Snob, your mission (should you choose to accept it): a little reconnoitring. The target: Hereford Road. The reward: i. the priceless gratitude of friends and ii. no-nonsense, unpretentious, British cooking. Fare enough.
Fergus Henderson’s St John is modern British cooking incarnate. However, although an institution that revels in being a status symbol for all that Britain stands for, it has not been able to avoid succumbing to some of what she suffers from too. Thus, at green fourteen, like the teenage mothers that grace Great Britain – the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe – St John has already fathered a clutch of cooks that have diffused through the Capital, carving out their own independent classrooms, but still preaching from daddy’s gospel.
Of this school, there is the Rochelle Canteen (run by Henderson’s wife), Great Queen Street, Anchor & Hope, Franklin’s (Dulwich), but possibly the student who has remained most loyal to what he learned is Tom Pemberton at Hereford Road. Tom started out at St. John itself, before moving to its sister restaurant, St. John Bread & Wine, as Head Chef. He then went into business with Alex Mosley, a former classmate from Westminster College days – Tom, bumped up a year, was in the same form group and specifically same maths class (set 4 – the bottom one) as comedians Adam & Joe and, none other than, Giles Coren. They set up shop in what was Veronica’s, resting in a peaceful part of Notting Hill, with the hope of providing a friendly place where locals could enjoy good cooking: ‘It seems to me the area lacks a strong neighbourhood restaurant. Our main priority is to provide genuinely high quality, interesting and affordable British food in a relaxed environment.’ It is worth noting though that the website suggests it is ‘also worth a journey for people who value excellent food.’
In what seems to be a de rigueur regulation for any restaurant worth its salt, serving British cuisine, as well as au courant currently, Hereford Road, just like Devonshire terrace, Blandford Street, Great Queen Street, 12 Temple Place, The Bleeding Heart, Brasserie St. Jacques and St. John, of course, has taken its title from its address. Occupying a glum-brown building that was formerly a Victorian butcher’s on said street, a small black wooden shop front showcases the restaurant through big, wide windows. Upon entering, the open kitchen is immediately on one’s left, with the opposite wall lined with cosy, two-seater banquettes upholstered with carnelian red leather, below glossy dark wood panelling. The kitchen and bar are tiled in an almost clinical, immaculate white ceramic, whilst the ceiling surprises with decorative flower carvings. Traversing the warped, hardwood floorboards that form the narrow passage betwixt, one descends a small flight of stairs to reach a larger, lower dining area. This sparse room is adorned not with flowers, pictures or even colour; the walls are painted pristine ivory. Simple wooden chairs and tables fill the floor, whilst one side is furnished with American diner-esque booths in more red leather. A central skylight allows the sun in, as light-boxes hang above the cubicles. The whole restaurant is ‘light and bright and airy’, whilst the intimate kitchen adds literal and figurative warmth.
The menu, following St. John maxim, changes twice a day and dish descriptions are minimalistic. It is full of simple, seasonal recipes bursting with adventurous, tasty yet generally discarded and humble ingredients – though rather fashionable right now – along with roasted joints. Today, calves’ head and pig’s trotters featured: nose-to-tail eating indeed. I am no stranger, but a big fan of such funny things, having grown up on them. Thus, I was spoilt for choice. The openness of the kitchen and easy access to the chefs encouraged dialogue, so I asked Tom himself to help pick a couple of items from each course.
Bread & Butter: Fresh-Baked Loaf. Simple yet scrumptious slices of bread, straight out the oven, were all that was offered and all that was needed. Each day, the bread is baked fresh according to whoever happens to be working that day’s recipe. Today, Luigi, made a luxuriously soft, moist crumbed number; its crunchy, crusty coat was almost sticky and had a pleasing subtle sourdough tang to it. Lescure butter from Normandy, and the only non-domestic product used by the kitchen (though they are looking for a premium British butter substitute – suggestions can be submitted in the comments below), was creamy in taste and texture.
Starter 1: Deep Fried Calves’ Brains and Tartare Sauce. Calves’ brain, covered in semolina, salt and pepper batter and deep-fried, came with a spoonful of sauce Tartare and lemon quarter. Normally, ‘deep-fried’ is enough to disinterest me in a dish (earning my entitlement, n’est-ce pas?), but the light coating on these calves’ cerebrums was superbly delicate and just slightly crispy whilst very creamy, nicely complementing the unctuous tenderness of the moist meat. The pepper of the casing, being of the freshly ground black kind, was strikingly potent and added a nice kick. The zesty lemon and tart homemade tartare, of cornichons, chives, capers, shallots and parsley, were good contrast to the brain, cutting through its fatty richness. I appreciate this may be an acquired taste, but I latched on to it long ago.
Starter 2: Lambs’ Tongues, Sweetbreads, Green Beans and Mint. Slightly more ordinary offal followed: pan-fried plumbs of lambs’ sweetbread and tongue were teamed with green beans and dressed with Dijon mustard, mint, sherry vinegar, red wine and roasting juices. The glands were juicy and soft with nicely caramelised skin whilst the tongue, which had been soaking in brine before, had an agreeable chewiness, without being tough, and distinct yet subtly salty savour. The snappy beans had fresh garden sweetness and the whole dish was perked by peppery, minty, tangy vinaigrette.
Starter 3: Braised Cuttlefish and Aioli. A bowl, filled with chunky slivers of cuttlefish and red onion partnered with aioli, was adorned with sprigs of rocket. The slowly simmered, and served room temperature, cephalopod was delectably tender, much more so than squid or octopus generally is, and together with the similarly soft, sweet red onion had an almost creamy consistency. Aioli – basically garlic and mustard mayonnaise – was freshly made and, in harmony with the rocket, added a little warmth. A simple red wine vinegar dressing was robust and full. Spreading the sauce upon the warm bread, dipping it into the juices and topping it with cuttlefish and onion was a delight.
Main 1: Slip Soles, Jerusalem Artichoke and Red Onion. Toothsome twosome of slip soles was served with salad of Jerusalem artichoke, red onion, capers and watercress, garnished with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and mustard. The flash-grilled baby Dover soles, formed of bouncy, lean, juicy fillets, were well-seasoned, succulent and very tasty. Roasted sweet red onion, peppery crisp watercress, sour capers and earthy artichokes were an excellent combination of deep flavours. Specifically, the knobby little tubers, tough on the outside and mushy inside, were a superb side to the fish; the grubby, ugly root an emphatic comparison in taste, texture and aspect to the refined, delicate Dover sole.
Main 2: Hake, Cockles and Fennel. A sizeable slice of hake lay upon a bed of cockles and fennel, all swimming in a saffron-infused stock. The fish, pan-roasted on the bone, was soft with crispy, intense skin. Fennel, which had been braised in possibly a court-bouillon with saffron, was juicy and tender; the fibrous little cockles, mildly briny, had been opened with the steam from the fennel. Hake is an awkward fish that has never given me much happiness, its flesh being less firm than I would prefer whilst its taste simply less appetising than cod’s. Furthermore, in this instance, the spicy, honeyed, bitter saffron, although a classic companion to seafood – bouillabaisse, paella, etc – in my opinion, did not come off well with this fish. That said, it gave the broth pleasant warmth as it did the fennel. Overall, this was a very substantial course and, whilst the flavours of the sole dish were more simple and graceful, here they were beefy, hearty and humble.
Dessert 1: Buttermilk Pudding and Shortbread. An elliptical ramekin, brimming with buttermilk infused with lemon and vanilla, arrived with two sugary shortbread biscuits. The creamy and smooth pudding’s sweetness was given a surprising serious citrusy sharpness from the lemon; the crumbly butter cookies – created from scratch, as were the biscuits – complemented it typically. This would do very nicely as a light finish to a heavy, meaty meal; however, here it performed just as well as a refreshing pre-dessert.
Dessert 2: Apple Crumble. Straight out the oven, an apple crumble topped with almond streusel, was brought over with a miniature milk jug of double cream. The piping hot pudding, composed of both Bramley and Cox apples, comprised moist, melting compote that had a hint of butterscotch (being made with brown sugar) and nutty, crunchy granola-like crumble coating. The cooling cream was an effective foil for the hot, rich fruity dessert. A filling, but fulfilling conclusive course.
Dessert 3: Vanilla; and Rum & Raisin Ice Cream. Whilst finishing off the crumble, I was offered a sample of the ice cream, homemade of course. One scoop of vanilla, aromatic and sweet, was paired with another of rum and raisin; the second had intense, sweet punch and plump raisins.
Watching Tom, and Luigi, working away within that cramped kitchen, in front of those blistering ovens and sizzling stoves, you realise this is more a labour of love than anything else. Speaking with the chef simply emphasises this; he is cooking the food he wants to eat and wants to share. The fact that this food – all those hard-to-find off-cuts and parts that make most people go ‘eeeew’ – happens to be that which I too love, makes my enjoyment of Hereford Road unavoidable. However, to assume that the restaurant’s appeal lies in its being one of only relatively few places that one can order, for instance, duck livers, sprats, Bath chaps (cured pig’s cheeks), is to do it a disservice; it does do all these things, but it does them well. Carefully sourcing the best of British produce (as mentioned before, all but the butter is domestic) Tom serves gutsy, full flavoured and satisfying food in gratifying portions at comforting prices. On top of that, through the Spartan presentation and preparation, the quality of execution is easily evident.
From Tom’s personal greeting and goodbye at the door – which everyone gets – to my waitress, Dora’s, constant Cheshire cat grin, service, as befits the setting, was laid back and friendly. Water refilled, warm bread replenished, dishes arriving in good time, pleasant conversation…all were there. In addition to which, a genuine neighbourly charm is tangible with locals mixing with foodies from all over to have a good time. Evenings are especially fun apparently, when large groups fill out the seventy-seats, sharing large roasted roe shoulders, veal shins or whole seabasses; actually the specially here is whole braised oxtail (for two/three people).
I must include a second commendation for the restaurant, as it comes from (one of) America’s greatest chefs, Thomas Keller (French Laundry, California (3*); Per Se, NYC (3*)). He considers this one of his favourite restaurant in London, he likes that ‘[i]t’s entirely free of pretension, has a nice energy and very knowledgeable servers.’ FYI, Keller loves the smoked eel with frisée and bacon.
Hereford Road may not do for those seeking creative, challenging or haute cuisine – although gastronomic adventure can be had with some of the more esoteric offal on offer. Instead, for a good time eating proper, old-fashioned, thoughtfully-made, honest nosh, it fits the bill nicely.
Oh, I almost forgot! Scouting done. Belly full. Mission accomplished.
3 Hereford Road, Notting Hill, W2 4AB
tel: 020 7727 1144
nearest tube: Notting Hill Gate