I’m going to open a restaurant. It’s going to be just outside the North Circular – not technically in Essex, but close enough that people from central London will sneer – in a former nightclub that was shut down when 50 of its punters engaged in a pitched battle later described as ‘like living through hell’.”
Some version of this sentence must have been spoken before the opening of The Woodford, a new restaurant headed up by Ben Murphy, a graduate of Pierre Koffmann’s kitchen at The Berkeley and a winner of the Young National Chef of the Year award. He’s 25. Think about that for a second. 25. What had you accomplished by then? Thought so. Now Ben can add “opening a lovely restaurant” to his list of achievements. By the time he hits 30 he’ll have been coronated.
The Woodford is a funny old place. To get there you disembark at South Woodford (on the Central Line, actually only half an hour from Tottenham Court Road), wander up a bleak concrete spur-road, head over the North Circular, keeping your head bowed against the driving rain, until you pass a sketchy row of takeaways and shuttered charity shops.
If the desired effect is to make The Woodford look good by comparison, then job done. Because when you walk through the restaurant doors you’re enveloped in a plush grey cocoon, little twinkly lights reflecting from copper-tinted mirrors, a springy carpet cushioning your every footfall. It’s hard to imagine that on this very spot the beered-up clientele of Funky Mojoes used to disembowel each other on a sticky dance floor.
Today it’s an homage to the kind of self-consciously genteel restaurant you don’t often see these days; a love-letter to fine dining improbably dumped on the outskirts of London. There’s not an exposed brick or a reclaimed railway sleeper or an uncovered air conditioning duct in sight – everything is sparkly and new and unashamedly expensive. It’s so devoid of irony that I began to wonder if it were in fact wrapped in a deeper layer of irony that I’d missed.
But probably not. The Woodford rings loud with the stretched vowels of Estuary English. This is a room filled mostly with locals who probably graduated from Funky Mojoes alongside the building itself, east enders done good, rather than the breathy foodie crowd you might expect to find at a fancy new Ben Murphy restaurant.
Not that the foodies wouldn’t be thoroughly satisfied, too. His cooking is showy but playful; fiddly but accessible. An amuse bouche included a “pea ice cream lollipop” and a “Jammie Dodger” with a red pepper filling. I had the deliciously creamy cheek of veal (or “Fritzel cow” as my guest put it) hunched beneath shavings of almond and bits of fluffy green… bread? sponge? I’m not sure. Mackerel with charred cucumber, ricotta and little mounds of pickle gel didn’t quite mesh but lobster with peach and fennel certainly did: a meaty fold of crustacean bathing in a rich, dark bisque. Little chopped fingers of asparagus in pea sorbet and grated lime was a nice palate-cleanser, although I’d have been disappointed if I’d ordered it as my only starter.
There’s a showmanship throughout, not least in the recurring spirals of mayonnaise or chocolate or other gummy substance. The pork, complete with tart balls of apple and an extravagant scorpion’s tail of spring onion, was faultless, drunk on its own glistening, fatty success and also on the liberal helping of Calvados. Monkfish with banana and red wine isn’t quite as interesting as it sounds, but is a success nonetheless thanks to how well it’s cooked, the banana confined to two vaguely bananary blobs on either side of the plate. Potato ravioli with truffle essence was beautifully crafted but limited by its own mean ingredients.
Desserts are all intricate twirls of chocolate and airy wisps of sponge. The apple and vanilla panna cotta is housed in a gelatinous, mint green womb. It’s as technically accomplished a dessert menu as you’re likely to find.
As we finished up, the next table along had gathered around for a selfie. So had the one on the other side. When in Rome, I thought, and coaxed our guests in for a picture. Why not? I’m not saying it should be like this everywhere – that would be horrible – but, like going to work commando, it’s refreshing every once in a while.
Drunk and happy, we decided to go for a nightcap.
“Only place open at this time is the Slug & Lettuce” advised a passing drunk. That’s enough to bring anybody back to reality: you’re in South Woodford and there’s nowhere to drink and it’s raining and it’s going to take ages to get home. The dream begins and ends when you walk through those doors.
First published in City A.M.