Hereford Road is supposedly Thomas Keller’s favourite restaurant in London. This was reason enough for me to give it a go. Upon entering the kitchen, one walks past the chef and his assistant, who run the show all by themselves. Tom Pemberton, who formerly served as chef de cuisine at St John Bread & Wine, doesn’t look like a typical chef. But, don’t be afraid, he can cook better than a large number of people (and chefs) in London.
The restaurant sports a very modern and welcoming design, which is quite impressive if you consider that the place charges you somewhere around 5£ for a starter. The toilet for instance, looked more stylish than that of many Michelin-starred restaurants.
Another thing you might like to find in a larger number of haute cuisine restaurants is home made bread. Here, they served only one type, but at least this was perfect bread. It seemed to have been made with some semolina flour and had a lovely crust, which I always enjoy. The butter was the only thing they were stingy with during my meal. After bringing new portions of bread every couple of minutes (yes, I do eat a lot of good bread), I reminded them of the very empty looking butter bowl.
The menu is another great thing: It changes at least once a day and no dish was more expensive than £18 (most around 13), with most starters and desserts somewhere around £6.
I went for the Cuttlefish with rocket and Aioli to kick things off. This was a real winner. Deliciously tender octopus, marinated and topped with some rocket was strong on flavour and very well made. The aioli gave the thing a rich finish. I don’t know if you can ask for more than good products, well prepared and seasoned? Excellent and simple.
To follow this, I chose the Duck Livers with beans. This was another great dish. A salad of perfectly cooked beans served as support for a healthy portion of pan-fried duck livers. The livers were cooked very well, and less fatty than the usual foie gras. They somehow had a more pronounced flavour and a bit more bite to them, which I really enjoyed. Despite not being gras, they were still quite a rich affair, which was countered beautifully by the vinaigrette of the bean salad. Another excellent dish.
The third starter was a jambon persille, which is a classical dish from the Bourgogne in which pork meat is cooked and then pressed with some parsley. Here they made a decent version of it, maybe not as good as some I had on the other side of the channel, but still very convincing.
The fish was a grilled hake with shrimp and spinach. Again, this was a simple association of 3 elements on the plate, which worked beautifully. I mean, you simply can’t beat a fresh piece of good quality fish, cooked to perfection and served with some equally well made accompaniments. It was simply satisfying food, unpretentious, unpolished, natural. Somehow, some of the dishes could possibly have been served in l’Arpege, if they carried another 0 at the end of the price, of course. Excellent.
For meat, I chose a roasted guinea fowl with endive and bacon. First time I came across endive in an English restaurant, which I somehow regret, as I consider this to be one of the finer winter vegetables. Yes, you read right there, on the Continent, we use endives more in the winter, which made me question the dishes’ seasonality a bit. But, fair enough, it certainly tasted delicious, larded with little strips of bacon and braised in poultry jus. The accompanying guinea fowl (a large piece of thigh and breast came roasted) was very good. Unfortunately, the skin could have been a bit more crisp. What I found impressive is that they told me that the bird was wild. Don’t know if it’s true, but it certainly did have lovely flavour. Although I kind of regret not having gotten the veal liver, which looked fantastic. Very good if not quite as good as the starters.
To finish things, I had a simple vanilla cheesecake with some poached rhubarb. Now, I had poached rhubarb at Ambassade de l’Ile a day earlier, and I can say, that this piece was no worse. Although I have trouble with rhubarb that is poached until it nearly is mushy, it served as a kind of marmalade in this case. The cheesecake itself was very well made. The vanilla clearly present, the cheese filling nicely creamy, and not too rich and the base deliciously crumbly and buttery. Excellent.
All in all, this was a hell of a meal, if you take the price into account. Everything was well cooked, well seasoned and left the way nature intended it to be, which shows that (a) they use good products and (b) they are confident enough to not hide behind complex sauces or garnishes. What I wrote about l’Arpege shouldn’t be taken 100% seriously, but some characteristics are shared by both restaurants. These little places are a real find for me, as you always spend a hugely enjoyable time, with friends when coming to such a restaurant. Also, the moment at which the bill appears on the table isn’t coming close to a death sentence (for your wallet at least), which makes you let yourself much freer to just enjoy the whole thing.
Anyone interested in cooking will be hugely enjoying this little place, as it carries a large number of assets!