All restaurant critics love St John. It's a requirement of the job. Alongside a willingness to reject the Nando's chicken and all his works, a devotion to Fergus Henderson's cooking is one of the fundaments of our professional catechism. "I believe in nose-to-tail cooking, in the resurrection of the body in the form of roast bone marrow, lambs' tongues and ox hearts, and in the fitness of the lowliest of God's scurrying creatures to form the basis of a decent starter. Let there be liver and lights."
A band of Henderson apostles has gone forth and multiplied over the years, in a diaspora that has given us Waterloo's Anchor and Hope and Covent Garden's Great Queen Street, among others. But none of these disciples has replicated the St John approach quite as faithfully as Tom Pemberton, a former St John head chef and one of Henderson's longest-serving acolytes, who has taken the puritan aesthetic west to Notting Hill.
Pemberton's new restaurant, Hereford Road, although unconnected, is pretty much a west London branch of the Clerkenwell mother ship. Located just off Westbourne Grove, in what was once a butcher's shop, it's smaller than the modernist whitewashed canteen that is St John, though not noticeably any cosier.
A narrow, white-tiled upper dining room is dominated by an open kitchen, from which Pemberton flashes a slightly wild-eyed smile at new arrivals. Facing the kitchen is a row of small bar tables, at which twosomes can perch side by side, as if in some designer pie and mash shop. Steps lead down to a lower dining area, windowless save for an enormous domed skylight – when the sun shines, diners sitting below it must swelter like ants under a magnifying glass. On a thinly populated Monday lunchtime, my friend and I were shown to a slightly rickety wooden table, while a row of comfortable red leather diner booths remained empty throughout.
The daily changing menu – simple, seasonal and traditionally British – has so much in common with St John that a DNA test would be needed to tell them apart. Game features strongly, in the form of grey leg partridge, roast mallard and roast grouse, as do neglected delicacies like Bath chaps (cured pig's cheeks), smoked sprats and whole braised oxtail. No concessions here to the Notting Hill yummy mummies; these stark, uncompromising dishes are a long way from the colourful, fashion-forward salads of Ottolenghi.
A starter of pigeon breast, salsify and pickled walnut was rather timid, the walnuts diced finely rather than chucked in whole, the salad leaves underseasoned. Similarly restrained was a combination of butternut squash and goats' curd which needed more caramelised intensity from the squash to really take off. "It's like the ingredients have just been introduced, but haven't had time to get to know each other," as my friend observed.
Main courses, though, seemed more confident. Whole roast grouse (at a bargain £19) was beautifully simple; just the perfectly cooked bird, with a fistful of watercress blooming from its cavity, a puddle of richly aromatic bread sauce and a slice of liver-smeared toast. My guest's calf brain (well, she's a food writer – that's what they do) was an exercise in texture as much as flavour, its crisply fried exterior yielding to a creamy unctuousness. It's an acquired taste, and one which my friend once indulged "before the whole BSE thing". Here, it comes with sage mash and capers – Pemberton seems awfully fond of his capers, scattering them over all four of the savoury dishes we tried.
It's a consolation of this rather Spartan style of dining that at the end of the meal you're engulfed in a comfort blanket of nursery puddings. Seasonal goodies here included rhubarb crumble, a sticky quince and almond tart, and a fabulous confection of meringue, spiced plum and clotted cream. Portions are huge – so much so that our waiter congratulated us on having cleaned our plates. He might as well have added, "You're not from round here, are you?"
And that's a worry. This is so not food for ladies who lunch – unless those ladies happen to be Clarissa Dickson Wright and her mate – that I slightly fear for Hereford Road's lunchtime trade. After all, this part of west London is like a very affluent commuter village during weekdays, peopled entirely by glamorous women and small children, while the menfolk are off earning squillions in the City. These dames didn't get where they are today (into size six jeans and good marriages) by lunching on turnip and bacon soup, venison pie or sticky date pudding.
At night, though, the place comes into its own, as I discovered when I returned for dinner later in the week. This time I made sure to book a booth – infinitely more comfortable – and the room was full of happy locals. Two of us shared a fabulously gelatinous oxtail, a huge thing served whole on a giant dish, garnished with meltingly sweet whole carrots. The friendly, well-informed staff laughed at the fact that a design quirk meant the tables were too big for them to clear, and the carafes of tap water they bring (unbidden) don't pour properly. And Hereford Road emerged as a really convivial neighbourhood restaurant. My guests, locals who thought they wouldn't enjoy the St John style of eating, were absolutely converted. And Amen to that.
Hereford Road, 3 Hereford Road, London W2 (020-7727 1144)