Editor's note - head chef Ben Murphy will be leaving The Woodford in late 2016. The restaurant closed shortly afterwards and went into administration.
When I used to live in Leytonstone in the 1980s the notion of a fine dining restaurant opening within miles of the area seemed fanciful. I can recall asking for shallots in my local greengrocer – from the reaction I might as well have asked for a unicorn. It is therefore a sign of changing times that an ambitious restaurant called The Woodford has opened, just two central line stops east of where I used to live.
The building, formerly a pub and before that a nightclub, is huge, spread over four floors in all. There is a champagne bar on the first floor, with a further bar and dining room at ground level. The room is large and has generously spaced tables and booths, with a central skylight. This was useful since the restaurant manager appeared anxious to dim the lighting to the level of a dungeon as soon as possible, the light getting murkier and murkier within minutes of us sitting down. Tables have no tablecloths but there was a pleasant feeling of space about the room, especially if you are used to the sardine-tin atmosphere of Soho restaurants.
Young head chef Ben Murphy has worked at Koffmann’s, had a two-year spell at the Epicure at The Bristol Hotel in Paris and a stint with the peerless Michel Guerard at Pres des Eugenie. There was an eight-course tasting menu at £85 and a set lunch menu for £24 in addition to an à la carte choice.
There was a quite short wine list with just over 40 bottles, ranging in price from £25 to £325, with a median price of £50 and an average mark-up of 2.5 times retail, which is very fair indeed by the standards of London. It had an unusual balance, with 14 champagnes compared to just 10 white and 12 red wines. It could be labelled better in places: Yves Cuilleron produces four different Cote Rotie wines, but which one appears on the list is a mystery since the description is ambiguous. Example bottles were Humberto Canale Malbec 2013 at a reasonable £25 given that in the high street it costs £13, Louis Michel Chablis 2012 at £45 compared to its retail price of £18, and Ascheri Barolo 2010 at £75 for a bottle that will set you back £42 in a shop.
A trio of nibbles appeared: pea ice cream lollipop was unusual and pleasant, a quinoa tuile with cod brandade and coriander powder decent, and the best was a well-made cheese sable biscuit with tomato and red pepper gel (13/20). Bread was supplied from The Bread Factory and was rather ordinary. This is an area that can easily be improved, and apparently the restaurant is anyhow rotating the bakeries that they use monthly at present.
My starter was a pair of scallops with celeriac and coconut velouté with smoked beer and treacle pancetta. This worked well, the scallops having pleasant inherent sweetness and lightly seared, the pancetta a nice contrast to the shellfish (14/20).
My companion had white asparagus with pea sorbet, lime and shiso (perilla). This was fine, but having eaten a lot of white asparagus in the last few weeks in Switzerland and Japan, the quality limitations of the main ingredient compared to the ones abroad was noticeable (13/20).
We had monkfish with shallots, onion petals, red wine sauce and banana puree as an intermediate course. The fish was of good quality and accurately cooked, and the sauce and shallots were fine; I confess to avoiding the banana, which seemed to me like an innovation too far (14/20 for the fish).
Halibut came with stuffed calamari, cauliflower and nori (seaweed). The fish was good, but the squid had a touch of chewiness that was probably all the more noticeable to me as I had been eating perfect squid in Japan a few days before this (13/20). I preferred Norfolk black chicken with baby gem lettuce, chicory and basil puree, with crisp chicken skin was served on the side. The bird was accurately cooked and the gem lettuce worked well, the basil enlivening the dish (14/20). On the side, spinach was fine but the star side dish was a set of four large chips, labelled “pont neuf” in a slightly obscure reference to a legend that French fries were invented by street vendors on the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in the late 18th century. These were exceptional chips, cooked beautifully through and crisp on the outside. They are made by creating a potato terrine using Maris Piper potatoes, which is then cooked and pressed overnight. They are then cut by hand into precise 5x2 cm blocks before the final frying. So many restaurants buy their chips in these days, so it is great to see a chef taking real trouble to take his seriously – I could have eaten these all night (easily 16/20).
Lemon ice cream came flavoured with poppy seed, a layer of meringue and lemon thyme. This was refreshing and had a pleasant balance of textures (14/20). Vanilla panna cotta with apple and blackberry crumble ice cream was prettily presented and the panna cotta had smooth consistency (comfortably 13/20). Coffee was from an Essex roaster called Mac & Me, and was pretty good. Double espresso cost £3 and came with some petit fours, so was not excessively expensive by the generally egregious standards of London.
The waiters were friendly, and drinks topping up mostly worked. The bill came to £72 a head including wine. This is roughly what you might expect to pay if you shared a modest bottle of wine. Overall The Woodford is a very enjoyable place to eat, with an airy room and good cooking. East London deserves more restaurants like this.