>Hereford Road, Notting Hill, London

>Hereford Road
★★★☆☆

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.

www.herefordroad.org

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Sambrook’s Brewery and The Westbridge, Battersea

Sambrook’s Brewery and The Westbridge, Battersea

Sambrook’s began brewing last August, in a desolate strip of Battersea. It’s a joint venture between David Welsh, who has 30 years’ experience in the trade, and Duncan Sambrook, twentysomething accountant-turned-brewer. Like many ideas – and people, come to that – it was spawned from a booze-up. But less commonly, this drunken brainwave has proved a success.

I find it a happy thing that the atavistic resurgence of English cooking, for which St. John takes a lot of credit, should be spreading to beer as well. In the age of WKD, wifebeater and the Wetherspoons beer ‘n’ burger, some people have gone back to basics, and are doing things properly. Sambrook’s is one of the very few breweries operating in what might charitably be described as central London; its closest neighbour, and soi-disant competitor, is Fuller’s in Chiswick.

Beer is easy stuff to eulogise. John Bull doesn’t get misty-eyed over anything quite like the English pint. It’s wedded to something deep within us: our climate, our temperament, our history. Real ale, as it has to be called nowadays, is as stout as a bulldog, as smooth as the Cotswolds, as full of life as an August afternoon amang the rigs o’ barley. Malt, hops, yeast: three humble organics bubbled to tawny greatness, the whole far greater than the sum. Almost as soon as our ancestors arrived on this rainy island, they started brewing. And from monks hunched over pewter, raking malsters, East End pickers and a nation constantly testing, testing, tasting – we produced something outstanding, unique, and incontrovertibly British. Best of all, it gets you pissed.

They brew just one ale here, called Wandle, in cask and bottle. Anyone from Wandsworth will tell you that the village lies on the river Wandle – so the brewery has a sense of its geography. I was invited by Dan, who works at Bibendum – a fine blogger with a gift for wine writing. Also present were his colleague, Gareth, as well as The Wine Sleuth, who’s provided excellent audio-visuals of the evening, and Charlie McVeigh, a convivial and witty restaurateur, and a blogging natural. Afterwards, Charlie treated us to a fantastic dinner and beer tasting at his pub round the corner, The Westbridge.

Duncan was hugely informative on the arcane craft of brewing – kettle and mash tun, liquor and gypsum. The brewery uses fresh hops, unlike the pellets more typical nowadays: three strains, with the gloriously English names of Fuggles, Goldings and Boadicea. It’s the last of these that gives Wandle its distinctive, proud astringency, and like the old battleaxe herself, it takes no prisoners. Fresh hops, with their weedy green aroma, are a lot more work, and in the past, Duncan has had to clamber into the tanks to fish out buckets of sodden strobiles. It’s too much to say that his labour seasons the beer, but it’s testament to his commitment for the project.

And so to tasting. Wandle is a deep amber, catching the light in bubble and foam. On the nose, it has hints of strawberry and almond. The taste is a glorious interchange of sweet and mellow bitterness, soothing and summery. It lingers with a dryish and not unpleasant finish, delicately nutty. In all – and I say this as far as I can with critical detachment – it’s a delicious pint.

The Westbridge is simply a gem of a gastropub, serving simple but well-executed food in a setting of undistilled nostalgia. The stairway down to the loos is decorated in vintage He-Man wallpaper, the sight of which gave me a Proustian jolt back to my childhood, the tinny theme and evocative nomenclature of that brilliant series: Grayskull, Orko, Eternia. Nick Drake plucks and twangs on the stereo. We ate meaty Irish rock oysters, splashing with osmazome, and then a good fish and chips with crispy, auburn batter and pearly flakes of pollock. A lamb steak looked excellent; and when I peeked at the prices, they were very reasonable. In total, we tasted six beers by the third-pint (which, it turns out, is a valid legal measure), providing a thorough overview of the well-chosen selection. The best was a porterhouse stout made with crushed oyster shells – a pleasantly encompassing complement to the bivalves. And so home we contentedly rolled.

Writing about evenings like this, in which you eat and drink for free, it’s perhaps harder to show that you approached the experience in as balanced a fashion as normal. There are two things I’d say to this. The first is the obvious point that in a restaurant, good service can enhance your enjoyment of the food. So, in reality, I write about these places just as I would anywhere that treated me well, or which I felt had gone the extra mile. The second is more complex. Dishing out freebies can be counterproductive for restaurateurs. As customers, we all want to avoid seeming like we’ve been hoodwinked, or sensing we were gulled into being nice. As a result, when writing about the perks they’ve been given, bloggers can be harsher than normal, accentuating faults they might otherwise have let pass, so as to display their uncorruptibility. That, I hope, isn’t the case here. Duncan and Charlie have objectively excellent products, which they’re keen to share and profit from. I certainly don’t blame them for it – in fact, I salute them.

Sambrook’s Brewery, Unit 1 & 2 Yelverton Road, London SW11
Tel. +44 (0)20 7228 0598

See on the TFYS Map

The Westbridge, 74-76 Battersea Bridge Road, London SW11
Tel. +44 (0)20 7228 6482

See on the TFYS Map

http://www.sambrooksbrewery.co.uk/
http://www.thewestbridge.co.uk/

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>Franco Manca, Brixton, London

>


Franco Manca

★★★★☆


My only job in catering, if you can call it that, was during the school holidays in Edinburgh, at a deliveries-only Pizza Hut. I took the orders over the phone, folded the boxes, foil-bagged the Ben & Jerry’s and the Irn-Bru. I sliced at the ‘cut table’ with a huge mezzaluna, and I slid the pizzas into cardboard. I made them, too – or at least, I assembled them. This was a curious operation. We removed thin, frozen pizza slabs from plastic wrapping. We splashed a pre-set quantity of fat into the deep dishes, dropped the cold discs in, and sprayed them heavily with chemicals from a mysterious and unidentified canister. Overnight, they defrosted, and swelled like boils into the pans, their dough as wet and pale as drowned corpse. Then we smeared them with tomato and cheese, and scattered them with toppings: rabbit-droppings of beef and pork (distinguished by different shades of brown), dry, raw chunks of green pepper, uniform slivers of salami, and stinking slugs of anchovy. ‘We eat the mistakes,’ the manager told me on my first day. He meant it as an incentive. I took it as a threat.

Franco Manca is nothing like Pizza Hut. It’s nothing like Pizza Express or Strada, either – those serviceable, clean and still very modern chains, each as blandly uncontroversial as an episode of Friends. Franco Manca is loud, brash and uncomfortable. It serves the worst white wine I’ve ever drunk, a lukewarm blend of bat piss and great-aunt’s sherry. The salad, which has a little chopped fennel, is actively boring. The much-trumpeted home-made lemonade is rather sickly, to my taste, although it’s cheap at a quid a bottle. The menu is as brief as a pair of Y-fronts.


But it makes the best pizza in the country.

It’s buried in Brixton Market, between plastic and plantains. An old Nigerian man wanders around outside yelling passages from the bible. As you queue – and you will queue – they take your order, and as soon as you sit down, the pizzas arrive. The wood-fired oven roars at 500 degrees, and the dough needs just 40 seconds to form a glorious speckled char, like leopardskin, for the cheese to bubble across the surface, for the tomato to roast until only its sweet, sunny essence, its deep red colour, are left.

I went with Kang, who runs one of the best-looking food blogs of all, London Eater. He recently hosted a competition on his site, which I won, and I suggested we put the prize towards lunch. Next on my list of places was Franco Manca, so that’s where we went. I told him where it was, adding: ‘You know, Kang, you’ll have to answer to the puns of Brixton.’

And I spent all week looking forward to it. Pizza is all about promise. It’s a treat biked to the door, in grease-doused cardboard, piping cheesy steam from corrugated port-holes. For kids, it means a fun day out – Saturday lunch in a bright room, dough balls and an American Hot. And even more, written in the history of pizza, almost in its soul, is a bigger and more powerful promise: the hope and expectation of a better life. The pizza we eat today is an actively, greedily mercantile mating of Old World and New. The ur-pizzas, proto-pizzas, those combinations of flour, leaven and salt, eaten across the northern coast of the Med – they were taken west (arguably to Lombardi’s in Manhattan, where I’ve eaten fine specimens), and commercialised, franchised and supersized, crust-stuffed, deep-dished, ham-and-pineappled, topped with caviar and smoked salmon, or hoi sin and shredded duck. Pizza is now the most globalised food of all. In it is everything you need to know about the motives and movement of people around Europe, America, and everywhere else. Kim Jong-Il loves it, for God’s sake.

For anyone of my generation, we can measure out our lives in the pizzas we’ve eaten. When I was ten years old, the universe offered no bigger treat than a Meat Feast on a Saturday night. When my parents divorced, and it was six years before we ate together again as a cracked, estranged family, that first meal was in Pizza Express. In the Oxford branch, in the oldest covered market in England, I ate more pizzas than I care to remember – always wine-fuelled and roaring, and never for much more than 20 quid. There, too, one Thursday, I got a stay of execution for a doomed relationship. And since I began working in London, the Strada at St Paul’s has probably fed me more lunches than anywhere else. Franco Manca makes better pizza than all of these places. It’s a new benchmark. From now on, when I want pizza, and I’m able to go, I will. (It follows market hours, and only opens for lunch Monday to Saturday.)

The thing is, I could tell you about the 20 hours they leave the sourdough to rise. Or how the dough was started in the 1730s. I could talk about the surgical attention to sourcing – meat from Brindisa, coffee from Monmouth, olives from Spain because the owner, Giuseppe Mascoli, thinks they’re better than Italian ones. I could mention the cheesemaker he flew to England to teach Somerset buffalo farmers how to make the milkiest, silkiest mozzarella. I could add that the oven is the only one of its kind in the country, and was shipped here from Naples. But it’s all extraneous. Go there, and eat, and you won’t care. It’s too bloody good.

Franco Manca, 4 Market Row, Electric Lane, Brixton, London, SW9
Tel. +44 (0)20 7738 3021

See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £20. That’s all.

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