Editor's note. This restaurant closed in mid 2016 but has reopened in Shoreditch.
Naming restaurants is tricky, but christening your place the American nickname for an unidentified person (such as a dead body) seems, er, quirky. Why not go the whole hog and call the place “Cadaver”? John Doe opened in October 2014, with co-owner and head chef Mark Blatchford, who worked for Claridges and as head chef at the now sadly closed Racine, as well as at various pubs. “Deer and Beer” was apparently a candidate name for the restaurant, and for me would sum it up quite neatly.
The restaurant is located at one end of Portobello market, and opposite the perpetually packed Lisboa Patisserie, who make their own Portuguese custard tarts and cakes in their basement. John Doe has a small dining area upstairs, including bar seats arrayed around the open kitchen, and a larger room downstairs. They can seat 70 diners in total when full.
The décor is minimal, with no tablecloths, wooden floor and plain white tiled and painted walls. The restaurant specialises in the grilling over wood and charcoal of wild ingredients, in particular venison (hence the other somewhat tortured point of the restaurant name, as in “doe, a deer, a female deer”). Starters were £6 to £8.50, main courses £15 to £23, side dishes £3.50 and desserts £6 to £7. There was a short list of under two dozen wines, ranging in price from £19 to £60, with a median price of £30 and an average mark-up of around 3.1 times the retail price, which is normal for London these days. Example labels were Bolfan Primus 2011 at £32 for a wine that can be found in the high street for £7, Mon Rose Montrose 2013 at £24 compared to a shop price of £8, and Tinel-Blondelet Sancerre 2011 at £32 compared to a retail price of £14. There is a selection of craft beers as well.
A starter of roasted octopus came with chickpeas and aioli. Even in Japan, octopus can be a chewy affair, but here it was tender, with a nice smoky note from the charcoal oven (easily 13/20). A venison burger came with Gruyere cheese that was had not quite melted enough, gherkin and red onion in a rather ordinary bun. The deer was cooked through to well done and had reasonable flavour, but overall this was the least satisfying dish that I tried (just about 12/20). It came with decent thin fries but I preferred roasted cauliflower as a side dish, this served with pomegranate seeds and being cooked to a pleasing texture, again with a light smoky note from the oven (13/20).
Valrhona chocolate terrine was topped with pistachios and served with pistachio cream. This was very enjoyable, rich and velvety with the pistachios having good flavour (14/20). Service was friendly if somewhat slow, which was to be expected as everything here is made to order. The bill at lunch, with just water to drink, came to £31. If you shared a bottle of wine and had coffee then a typical cost per person would be nearer £55. This is not exactly a bargain, though there are certainly pricier and less competent restaurants nearby. John Doe seems to have had a quite successful start despite, as befits its name, shunning any overt public relations activities thus far. I imagine that it will prosper.