Woodford: Sir Winston Churchill was MP for the Woodford and Wanstead constituency during the Second World War, and his statue stands imposingly looking towards Westminster, close to the cricket pitch, one of the oldest in the UK with a history stretching back to 1735. Then there’s the little known fact that David and Victoria Beckham had their first date at The Castle on Woodford High Road, when it was a bar and nightclub. We’re deep in TOWIE land here and the historical stuff jostles against the collagen enhanced lips.
Having grown up in Woodford, there has only ever been one restaurant worth returning to over all of those years and that is the Pizzeria Bel-Sit, family owned and run since 1981, cash only, no reservations, and a honking foghorn announcing all birthdays as the lights dim and all the waiting staff chime in with Happy Birthday. A neighbourhood Italian to cherish. Apart from that it’s a dining desert. The most recent opening of any merit has been Max Renzland’s Provender Bistro in nearby Wanstead.
So when I hear of an opening with a ‘Michelin-trained chef’ aiming to bring ‘sophisticated dining’ to Woodford, with ‘exposed filament lightbulbs’ and ‘industrial chic’ style drop lighting, I’m immediately sceptical: I’m expecting a gaudy, Essex perma-tanned version of haute cuisine that jangles with all the worst bits of supposed ‘la-dee-da’ scarfing, with a side-order of botox and vajazzle. After several meals these knee-jerk assumptions are tossed away…
History of the previous incumbents is ‘well dodge’. The Georgian Grade II listed building had previously served as Funky Mojoe’s, a bar with a chequered history involving late night Essex fisticuffs, general disorder and a procession of ‘celebs’ partying hard until 3am including television’s The Only Way Is Essex. Not many locals were sad to see it close. Backed by restaurateur Steve Andrews, founder of The Blue Group and The Grey Group who own hotels, restaurants and bars across Essex, a serious makeover of a reported £1.3 million has transformed the venue into a 100 cover restaurant.
Leading the kitchen is Ben Murphy, a former Young National Chef of the Year winner in 2012 while working for Pierre Koffmann at The Berkeley. Time spent working in France saw him at the three Michelin starred venues of Epicure at Le Bristol in Paris, and Les Pres d’Eugenie in Paris, before his return to London at two starred The Greenhouse in Mayfair. Restaurant Manager William Yarney met Ben while they were both studying at the acclaimed Westminster Kingsway College (as did assistant manager, George) before going on to Koffmann’s at The Berkeley and Shangri-La at The Shard.
A first visit in opening week, an over enthusiastically salted piece of monkfish (£26). A smoked pigeon dish (£11.50) that arrives under a glass cloche and a fug of smoke, triggers cloche fear (oh no, are they cloche-ing dishes all over the shop?), and a couple of prejudices appear to be confirmed: ‘fayn dayning’ frippery with ’textures’ of this and ‘essence’ of that, with some punchy pricing. I’m keen to try the options on a separate ‘grill’ menu….
So I return, order Norfolk black chicken, and…… it’s starting to make more sense. A side of potato gratin yields creamy dauphinoise-like layers, and soaks up some of the chicken juices and charcoal mayonnaise. Mushy peas are ordered, and are seasoned beautifully, but would have the marrowfat pea brigade (they are out there, as they should be) blowing a gasket, as these are made from the posher pea, the garden pea of pea purée. That’s fine, we’re not having fish and chips, so all good. No need to get on the marrowfat high horse here.
More visits, favourites so far….
Lobster with Lobster Mayonnaise, Peach, Fennel and Vin Jaune (£17) – Chunks of tail and claw, perked up with the brightness of peach and anise thrum of fennel, a fantastic accompanying tiny pot of lobster bisque good enough to call for a whole bowlful.
Potato Ravioli with Mushroom, Onion and Truffle Essence (£19) – Roundels of good pasta, a slick of rich mushroom sauce, pea shoots. Always surprising how satisfying pasta stuffed with potato can be, and this is a great reminder.
Norfolk Black Chicken, Charcoal Mayonnaise, Spring Onion (£22) – Breast (sous vide going on there for sure, finished on the grill), a couple of great ballotines of the leg, stuffed with herbs and encased with crisp skin.
Textures of Beetroot, Goat’s Curd Mousse, Raisin and Red Vein Sorrel leaves (£9) – Gorgeously presented with lots of cheffy technique on display and psychedelic heritage beetroot. One of the dishes delivering a lot without making you spaff (too much) cash.
Creedy Carver Duck Breast, Crisp Confit Leg, Burnt Orange – Simply, starkly presented, perfectly cooked to blushing pink. Great with the Pont Neuf chips.
Pont Neuf (£4) – Not just fat chips, but fat chips layered with slices of pressed potato in each baton, each mouthful a crackle of texture. Echoes of the excellent confit potatoes at Quality Chop House and potato cakes at Pitt Cue – order, then order again.
Potato Gratin (£4) – Order from the grill menu, with one of these comforting, cossetting gratins. Oozy and creamy.
The oyster and seafood bar on the second floor is adorned with pictures of Churchill; considering his close association with the area, it would be good to see them list his favourite Champagne Pol Roger, particularly Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill which the family named in his honour. May have to lobby for this. For the moment, the novelty of being able to walk home from a decent restaurant while doffing the cap to his statue will have to do.
The opening of The Woodford is a massive statement for the area, a hugely ambitious one with a great young team. Woodford is very grateful to have them.
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