Livin' la Vida Local
“Unless you want an overpriced fancy dinner, you can now only get fancy overpriced nibbles for a lunch. No more lovely cob rolls. No sandwiches. No jacket potatoes. Now an overpriced wine bar” – Upset Local, TripAdvisor, December 20017.
It’s usually a sign that a pub is doing something right if they’ve managed to enrage some of the commenters on TitAdvisor, a forum inhabited by loonies, nut jobs and self-enraged, frothing head cases.
The League of Gentlemen comes to mind reading the woes of this one, a step away from ‘Are you local? This is a local shop for local people, there’s nothing for you here.’ Fancy this, fancy that, overpriced this, and on and on. The rare occasions I dip into this maelstrom of uppity criticisms and belching, leave me bellowing SHADDAP at the screen.Read on...
Poised, taut, nervy, with echoes of great white Burgundy. I worked a vintage with Jamie Kutch in Sonoma in 2006, for boutique Pinot Noir producer Kosta Browne, sorting the grapes as they came to the winery at 6am. He made his first experimental barrels of wine that year, under the tutelage of winemaker Michael Browne. Under his own label, he is now making some of the most profound, exhilharating wines – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – in California.
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.
Dorking Deepdene: No One Can Hear You Scream
‘Dorking Deepdene? Does this place even exist? I’m scared.’
So we missed the train from Dorking. The last train that night, pulling away from the station as we came clattering down the station stairs in a deranged sprint from the cab – missed by five seconds. Five bloody seconds.
I blame the taxi driver, who took fifteen minutes to arrive. I blame us for not booking it earlier. That taxi arrives seconds earlier, we make the train – the bare facts. Last train from Dorking station gone at 11pm. Surrey is now HELL. Options? The final FINAL one back to Blackfriars in an hour…from Dorking Deepdene. Eh? Where The Actual F**k? A short walk away from the main station, where we are stranded. Ok, phew.
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.