Now, don’t get me wrong. I love rediscovered, born-again, new-fangled British food as much as the next man. I respect the compromise of old and new, the feel for memory and season, the roots in history and soil. I like mutton, jugged hare and Sussex pond pudding. I think an honorific for Fergus Henderson is long overdue. (Though to name St. John the 14th best restaurant in the world, 29 places above the Louis XV, is frankly barking.)
But here’s the rub. There’s a reason British food became an international joke – one that plenty of countries still find funny. At its Victorian worst, our food was as bland as clingfilm, as tame as Lassie. And at least one modern restaurant, serving resurgent English grub to metropolitan foodies, is crippled by a comparable timidity. Hereford Road is less a development of St. John than a faint, approximate copy of it. Tom Pemberton is the head chef, a former protégé of Henderson and, funnily enough, once a schoolmate of Giles Coren. The site is an old butcher’s shop (St. John, of course, was once a smokehouse) on a street twisted with Notting Hill affluenza. The room is as welcoming as a headmaster’s study. Like St. John, fabric is deemed a Neronian extravagance, so it’s all bare floors, unlinened tables, empty walls. I do wonder at the point of all this austerity. What’s wrong with a bit of cloth?
‘Tap or mineral water?’
What a nice question! Tap of course, and it comes in a pretty decanter. The menu, which changes daily, lists ingredients rather than dishes. ‘Rabbit, mustard, spinach and mash.’ ‘Roast Blackface lamb, courgettes and mint.’ ‘Apple and elderflower trifle.’ We all know that British food (especially savoury) is often little more than a shopping list of seasonal ingredients, simply prepared. Tonight, although asparagus and wild garlic nod towards spring, most of the food is still in chilly hibernation. Who wants to eat roast Jerusalem artichokes with the daffodils blooming? Or, for that matter, kale, the wintriest veg of all? ‘Seasonal’ means this season, not any old season, and a daily menu is a luxury that should emphasise this.
20 minutes pass, an aeon at a foodless table. A fennel and wild garlic soup tingles with aniseed. It’s flecked with green strips of wild garlic leaves, but not, oddly, with their flavour. This is essentially a cream of fennel soup, with a dim chivey whiff. I rarely add salt to a dish, but I do here, and plenty of pepper. Crab on toast is better – a rich smear of brown, flushed with lemon, on crumby toast. The meat has a decent pastiness, but again, needs lifting with salt. It’s strange: the ingredients are obviously excellent, but something is missing.
Hours seem to pass before the main courses show up. Little is as fraught and anxiously depressing, as thumb-twiddlingly, wine-sippingly painful, as a long wait for restaurant food. C is excellent company, but we’ve come here to eat, and the excitement and pleasure of the evening begin to ebb like a dying Catherine wheel. When the food finally appears, and I’ve shaved off my white beard, it’s a mixed bag. Onglet is an insole, with cold and mealy chips. Calf’s liver is milky and perfectly cooked, budding with lentils and those wintry flaps of kale. Ox cheeks are the dish of the evening, collapsing like they’ve run a marathon, richly sauced in flavoursome, slow-cooked murk. There’s proud and fluffy mash too, unlike the puddle popularised by Joël Robuchon. It’s an excellent dish, exactly the sort of thing you hope for in a restaurant like this. Sad, then, that it should be the only plate to stand out.
I finish with a rhubarb meringe, apparently assembled by a dyspraxic three year-old. I know that Hereford Road is about unadorned food, none-of-your-poncy-frou-frou-stuff-here-matey, but well, you know… look at it. It tastes a bit better: the fruit is zingily tart, which compensates for the overcooked meringue. And hang on… oh God. I reach to my lips and pull out a short, black, curly hair. The waitress apologises and politely sweeps away the plate, bringing another helping in its place. She knew I’d still want it.
We emerge rather dispirited. The menu at Hereford Road promises like a sugar daddy but delivers like the postal service of Zimbabwe. It sources terrific produce only to treat it with a kind of baffling indifference. Food is consistently underseasoned, and I find the studied inelegance of the presentation distracting, rather than comforting or homely. These aren’t teething problems, either: the restaurant’s been open since October 2007. Pricing is fair and service is friendly. The ethos, you see, is faultless: I just can’t say that for the execution.
3 Hereford Road, London W2
Tel. +44 (0)20 7727 1144
See on the TFYS Map
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £53.