Double value this week, as I review not one, but two, very different new restaurants. One was dead boring, with food that lacked punch and direction, while the second was right on-song, with a well-oiled kitchen turning out seasonal, daily changing food that was a joy to eat.
Interestingly, they share the same address – it's just that my second visit came a week after my first.
That early visit to Hereford Road was a real letdown. My fault, perhaps – I had been pumped up about the idea of the head chef of St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields, Tom Pemberton, opening a neighbourhood-style gaff off the real-people's end of Westbourne Grove with business partner Alex Mosley. I walked past often, checking out the transformation of what was once a butcher shop into a white-tiled, stainless-steel open kitchen, and behind it, a lower-level dining-room.
As soon as the doors opened, I was there, admiring the eat-my-shopping-list menu (chestnut squash and bacon soup; green-bean vinaigrette, sorrel and boiled egg; whole baked codling, leeks and white beans) and the easy, no-frills, St John-inspired style.
But the chef looked stressed that night, the staff were self-conscious and the half-filled room was devoid of atmosphere. The food was so dull as to be annoying. What had read as bravely pared-down and splendidly single-minded turned out to be very plain food plonked on a plate as if by a harassed mum. The salad of green beans, sorrel and egg (£5.50) was a side-dish more than a starter, lacking any acid or punch. A pot-roasted saddle of mutton (£13) tasted beige, its splodge of salsa verde – an Italian relish that should be piquant with vinegar, with added kapow from anchovy and capers – so anglicised as to lack any bite at all. It was if the kitchen had run out of vinegar and thought nobody would notice.
Pinkly cooked veal kidneys in a light mustard sauce (£6.50) and grilled whole plaice with boiled potatoes and spinach (£13.20) showed more promise, but a wedge of quince and almond tart (£5.50) was a trial, my fork almost doing a Uri Geller trying to crack the pastry. So I left it a week and went back.
Seated in one of the cute little two-seater banquettes opposite the kitchen, I get a front-stalls view of the action. A carafe of water arrives instantly, along with a basket of house-baked bread. The kitchen seems in control; well-rehearsed floor staff are upbeat; and the mainly local clientele look as pleased as punch with their whole braised oxtail for two –the whole tail in a single piece – and good-looking rolled pork shoulder with crackling.
What a difference a week makes. I start with a slab of pigeon and pork terrine (£6) that is meaty and moist, with a little pink heart of pigeon heart. Somebody has obviously put vinegar on the shopping list, because the turmeric-coloured cucumber pickles on the side are perfect, with a good, sharp but balanced punch.
A single roasted grey leg partridge with red cabbage and chestnuts (£17) is everything that is good about autumn, the bird rested and tasting sweetly, lightly gamey, and is an elegant match for a fruity, good-value Maglietta Rosso Barbera D'Asti (£18.50) from the predominantly French wine list. A single pan-fried skate wing is crisp and golden on one side, with juicy, melting flesh beneath. Accompanying mushy peas are a bit stiff for comfort, but this is still a vastly different meal to that of seven days ago.
That's the thing about the St John style of simple, seasonal, unadorned and unadulterated food. There is nowhere to hide. Get the produce, the flavour combination, the seasoning or the timing wrong and it is the emperor's new clothes. Nail it, and it is suddenly wow, look at that cloth, that cut, that glittering gold trim.
Pemberton is now starting to nail it more often than not. And aren't you the lucky ones, because you only get to go to the second restaurant reviewed.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait togo back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Hereford Road, 3 Hereford Road, London W2, tel: 020 7727 1144. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £80 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More bovine restaurants
Jersey Farm Hotel
Darlington Road, Barnard Castle, County Durham, tel: 01833 638 223
The restaurant of this popular country hotel is surrounded by 12 acres of farmland. Hearty fare includes stews of local game and a generous carvery
89 Westbourne Park Road, London W2, tel: 020 7221 0021
Upstairs at Tom Conran's Notting Hill local, it's the full gastropub deal, while downstairs it's a cosy, crowded boozer with overflowing seafood platters
The Bull Inn
High Street, Sonning, near Reading, Berkshire, tel: 0118 969 3901
This charming half-timbered village inn was mentioned in Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. The menu runs from a ploughman's to jerk chickenReuse content