'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