What's Your Flava?
"Is it Spanish? Oh, really? I couldn’t tell because of some of the words. Not heard of Estrella. Is it Champagne?” – Sabor, 'Mayfair Joe', February 2018
I wrote this review months ago….well, I could have done. Nieves Barragán is the dynamo chef who drove the brilliance of Fino in the basement of Charlotte Street from the day they opened in 2003, then continued with the first Barrafina in 2007, the game changing Spanish restaurant that had people queueing out the door in Soho when ‘no reservations’ wasn’t really a ‘thing’ in London. These two shining lights in London’s Spanish restaurant pantheon – owned by Sam and Eddie Hart – blitzed much of what had gone before. The roll call went something like this: best croquetas in London; best pan con tamate; best tortilla, oozing its eggy innards; best suckling pig at Fino, its crisp skinned, burnished portions to be snapped up before they ran out; best huge carbineros prawns, a shock of red slapped on the plancha, the heads to be sucked clean…and so it went on.Read on...
3 Ball Zinfandel is a blend of grapes from three Californian counties, made by a chap known out there as ‘Zinbitch’. True story. Christian Tietje has acquired this memorable moniker for his winemaking at Cypher Winery, crafting high end Zinfandels. This latest project is a blend of Sonoma County, Paso Robles and the foothills of Amador County, with a splash of Petite Sirah and Carignan lobbed in.
A right ole' mouthful this one, charging out with dark cherry and blackberry, then slapping you about a bit with a healthy 15% ABV, but it's all in seamless balance – plush, lush, silky, satisfying.
A discovery while visiting The Fordwich Arms pub in Kent, where some cracking cooking is going on, where the open fires make you want to stay all day, and where co-owner Guy Palmer-Brown has assembled an interesting little list.
And Christian? Oh, he's noted as the "surfer, punk rocker, metal artist winemaker" who fell in love with wine and oysters in a small fishing town in Maine, and ended up cooking in seafood and Italian restaurants across New England. Obsessed with seafood and the ocean, he also makes a wine he considers the "ultimate" seafood wine, blending Viiognier, Riesling, Grenache Blanc and Chardonnay – it's called Octopussy.
When he's not being a Zinbitch he's surfing on California's Central Coast, popping oyster shells, or welding a metal sculpture: of course he is. Rock 'n' Roll winemaker....
This part of north east London, hugging the border with Essex — where suburbia quite dramatically transforms into the vast expanse and bucolic leafiness of Epping Forest — has historically offered meagre scraps for decent dining-out options.
But what’s this? In the past two years there has been a flurry of activity quite unlike anything I’ve seen around here before. The Woodford swaggered into town with a Pierre Koffmann protégé, Ben Murphy, at the helm, and with a palpable, Michelin star-chasing ambition. Yes, it has since closed, but it was an early salvo, an indicator of the shift in mood.
Campanian gem in Margate
“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I'm telling ya mate I'd rather have a day down Margate with all me family.” – Chas and Dave, Margate (1982)
Margate was never on my radar. Family seaside jaunts focused instead on Southend and its addictive strip of amusement arcades, when the thought of sitting in an Out Run machine (SEGA), the model car complete with real (gasp) steering wheel, gear stick, and foot pedals, was enough to send an eleven-year-old into raptures: collective 1986 minds were blown.
The Fordwich Arms
Where The Light Gets In
The Mash Inn
Grand Trunk Road
The Laughing Heart
German Doner Kebab
Black Axe Mangal
House of Ho
'Everybody laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now.' – Bob Monkhouse
Buckhurst Hill County High was a tough place in the late 1980s, one where getting to class each day tended to involve stepping around fisticuffs as it all ‘kicked off’, a boy’s school that had a seam of latent aggression simmering beneath the surface – of particular note was the ‘flob pit', whereby retrieving a stray football in the playground that had bounced down some basement stairs, required a quick grab and go before cries of ‘flob pit’ had echoed around, leaving the unfortunate lad covered in spittle and – I seem to remember – a high percentage of greenish flecked phlegm. Halcyon days.
A casual walk along Queen’s Road – around the corner from that school, closed years ago – sees me throwing a cartoon double-take towards a newly refurbed interior. Hang on, that’s not another tanning salon…it’s not even a nail boutique…glory be, it’s going to be a restaurant. The look of it recalls memories of the dining room of Alistair Little in Soho back in the 90s – starkly white, bright, a room unadorned with very much at all. I tap in the details on the window into Google….
Oh ‘ello, what’s this? Richard Wilkins, 29, a chef with time spent working at Maison Pic in France (Anne Sophie Pic’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Valence), the Waterside Inn in Bray, Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus, and Chiswick’s Hedone, opening a thirty cover, swank looking place with a teeny open kitchen in the dining room? On Queen’s Road? The same quiet, cute, village-y Essex street that a member of TOWIE used to have a boutique? It would appear so. A booking is made.
Two days later and I’m scarfing an impeccable Landes Foie Gras torchon, with mango and papaya relish. A first, for Buckhurst Hill, fo’ sho’. Then it’s Cumbrian lamb, saddle and neck, cooked to blushing pink, crisp ribbons of deeply flavourful fat, with Cévennes onion (first journey to these parts, surely, for the sweet ‘Doux de Cévennes’ flourishing its AOP from the Gard in south central France) – it’s all several gear changes above anything else in IG9.
Agnolotti ‘Carbonara’ á la Heinz Beck’s lauded iteration with fagotelli pasta makes a welcome appearance (the Beck version I tried at The Lanesborough Hotel in 2009 was an eye-opening thrill-ride), and while not reaching the heights of those silken parcels of molten carbonara eruption, another couple of visits sees it much improved, the addition of guanciale rather than pancetta raising the game. Matthew Norman, in his 2009 Guardian review, best distils how good the Beck pasta was: '…parcels of impeccable fresh pasta filled with a cheesy, bacony cream that shot gratifyingly down the throat as you bit into them.' Yep, they were good.
There’s seared foie gras from the plancha on some days; Landes chicken and braised hispi cabbage on others; fresh pappardelle with pumpkin; whole native lobster cooked in brown butter with citrus zest has made an appearance – sourdough bread is particularly good, breadmaking skills bringing it into the same league as the wonderful bread at Hedone. There’s a moulleux au chocolat wedge that has this dessert dodger – usually ducking out after main courses – cooing at silken, satin textured fondant.
Matt Hough runs front of house (most recently at Hedone), and with the tiny kitchen set-up at the end of the room, the experience is currently akin to a private chef landing in your living room – no bad thing, when you can poke your nose over the pass and ask how he’s prepped the venison loin. Turns out Richard did lots of the refurb of the building himself, plastering and re-plastering, knocking a wall through here and there. The pair admit that the kitchen should really be bigger, but it’s the very start of their project – two months since opening – with everything still evolving.
Friends who went to school in Buckhurst Hill and have since moved away, they laugh when I tell them that this part of Essex is strutting like never before with ambitious openings. Well....
'Well, I can’t see anyone else smiling in here….are you sure?' – Jarvis Cocker (Common People, 1995)
75 Queens Road
Essex IG9 5BW
'O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings....' – John Keats
John Keats shared lodgings with his friend Henry Stephens on St. Thomas Street between 1815-16, while they were studying at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. The street takes its name from the hospital – named after St Thomas Becket, sometime after his canonisation in 1173 – which for over six centuries occupied ground where St Thomas’ church has stood since 1704. The oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe survives in the garret at the top of the building, now a museum.
Duddell’s occupies St Thomas’ church, a grand old building built by Sir Christopher Wren’s master mason Thomas Cartwright, its Queen Anne architecture caught against the glowering shadow of The Shard – it’s an unlikely, beautiful setting for a restaurant.
Two Michelin star garlanded at their first restaurant in Hong Kong, arriving into a building wreathed in a rich history makes me immediately inwardly mutter: ‘Please don’t f**k this up’. It turns out that they haven’t – three visits confirm that it’s rather good.
There are shades of Hakkasan, echoes of Yauatcha, flickering throughout this premium menu (this is posh Chinese, with prices to match), which makes sense on discovering Head Chef Daren was previously Executive Chef with the Hakkasan Group.
A rat-a-tat-tat hammering of visits within a week revealed highlights of Peking Duck, its skin lacquered into ravishing crispness and carved tableside, skin to be dipped in fennel sugar, flesh wrapped with homemade pancakes and mandarin and sesame dressings; textbook prawn dumplings pass the 'Har Gau Test' (nowhere to hide here for a dim sum chef), crammed with sweet bouncy prawn, gossamer casings; glutinous rice with chicken in lotus leaf, generously filled; black pepper duck pumpkin dumplings, gentle pepper heat; prawn and crispy bean curd cheung fun, a playground of crunch and chew; a playful ‘Dim Sum Symphony’ of artfully crafted seafood dumplings (fishy shapes, little eyes) including king crab, scallop and prawn.
They are not dicking around with their chicken dishes, either, using the regal Poulet de Bresse in each plate of Cantonese soya chicken (poached and then smoked with jasmine tea leaf); crispy salted chicken (to gnaw and suck off the bones, the skin a joy; roasted pomegranate chicken a favourite of General Manager Xian Ming Chen. As someone who gets excited about a great chicken – yeah, sheltered life – this all gets a massive ‘high five’.
There’s every chance that Keats would have entered St Thomas’ church while studying here (a statue of him was installed in 2007 outside the hospital building across the road, within an alcove from the original London Bridge dating back to 1176), finding solace from an area he described as ‘a beastly place in dirt, turnings and windings’. In 1815 this part of Southwark was littered with dilapidated buildings, open ditches of waste, and frequented by thieves and prostitutes.
Duddell’s is already doing a fine job of giving this building, steeped as it is in the history of the area, a renewed relevance and resonance for this part of town.
9A St. Thomas Street
"See how its strength bursts to the top of the glass...the difference is almost frightening." – These are the mellifluous tones of suave British actor William Franklyn, on a voiceover for a 1970s Schweppes commercial, as a wrecking ball keeps smashing into the house he's walking through. You can hear the tonic in his glass fizzing amongst the crashing.
'I forgot it was still open'
'I forgot to go back'
'I haven't had a chance'
'Been doing the new places'
'I thought it wasn't all that'
'I thought it was shit'
— It started with venison medallions and a Barossa Valley Shiraz: the dish that sent me down the path of food and wine while living in Sydney. A career change from advertising began by joining Oddbins in 2003, then to independent merchant The Winery (specialising in German Riesling, Burgundy, Piemonte, California), moving to selling wine to London restaurants, and a stint as sommelier at Zucca in Bermondsey — the writing kicked in after all of this. I’ve written for various publications including The Evening Standard, The Guardian, Christie’s Magazine, The London Magazine, Noble Rot, Completely London, Caterer, and Ocado magazine. I consult on wine lists for restaurants, recent projects including Smoking Goat, Kiln, Coombeshead Farm, Bibo, Arabica Bar and Kitchen, Frontline Club, Cây Tre and Martello Hall.