db Eats: The Woodford

The cooking of precocious chef Ben Murphy earned The Woodford the accolade of London’s best restaurant almost as soon as the restaurant opened its doors. db went to find out what all the fuss is about.

Caption

The Woodford head chef Ben Murphy, 25, is aiming to win his first Michelin star

The concept: Having been open for just four months, The Woodford became the shock winner of the Evening Standard’s London’s Best Restaurant of 2016 award. With precocious Pierre Koffmann-trained head chef Ben Murphy at the helm and gunning for his first Michelin star, this is an improbable fancy food destination on the site of a former ASBO nightclub on the London-Essex border.

The décor: Gone are the purple neon and drunken Towie cat fights (the venue was once Funky Mojoes, a notorious club frequented by the reality TV stars); in their place a demure fine dining set-up: bluish-grey (Grace Dent called it ‘otter’, but it looked more of a blue-grey to me) chairs and dimpled banquette booths, obligatory exposed filament bulbs dangling from the ceiling and monochrome grey walls sparsely hung with sepia prints of the South Woodford of yore. The bar is made of an enormous, gleaming slab of black polished granite and there are long, Gothy drape curtains here and there, suggestive, ever so slightly, of the funereal; the kitchen, and the food coming out of it, present a striking contrast.

Pork

Dingley Dell pork with apple, coriander and Calvados

Food: Ben worked for Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley for three years, then at three-Michelin-starred Michel Guérard restaurant Les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie-des-Bains,three-starred Epicure Hotel Le Bristol in Paris, and two-starred The Greenhouse in Mayfair. His food is very much in the minimalist nouvelle cuisine mode. The menu serves only as the most basic bulletpoint guide (eg, Cod, Courgette, Lemon, Cauliflower), providing a nice element of surprise for diners when they discover the chef’s interpretation on the plate.

The dishes appear a touch buttoned-up but are executed with flair: there’s a focus on textures and different cooking methods – a feather-light squid ink sponge goes beautifully with sautéed halibut and cauliflower presented raw, cooked and puréed with nori; Dingley Dell pork comes with gels of coriander and Calvados with crunchy pickled apple and puffed pork scratching.

There’s great attention to detail, too, even with the sides: pont neuf potatoes are made Dauphinoise-style from several super-thin layers of potato and are delicious. Amuse-bouches are suitably amusing and creative, and include a savoury Jammy Dodger and a chicory madeleine. A fine-looking tasting menu (dishes include Scallop, Coconut, Celeriac and Bacon, and Monkfish, Banana, Shallot and Red Wine) can be enjoyed for £100 with wine or £70 without.

Drinks: A newly opened cocktail bar upstairs, the Churchill Lounge, has its own ‘Signature Serves’ cocktail menu (try a Woodford Club with Gin, raspberry and thyme shrub, Lemon, eggs whites and marshmallow or a Blind Date combo of Hibiscus syrup, Cariel vanilla vodka, Chambord and Champagne). The wine list, it has to be said, is basic – a big selection of Champagne (Pommery, Perrier-Jouët, Bolly, Taittinger, Ruinart, Krug, Billecart-Salmon, some as prestige cuvées) and some classic Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhône, otherwise choices are limited. Affable general manager William (formerly of The Shangri-La in the Shard and Heston’s Fat Duck in Bray) is working on this, however, with more lines set to be added as the restaurant settles in and a sommelier likely to come on board at some point this year.

Signature dish: Chef Ben suggests his monkish served with banana, shallot and red wine, which hints at some of the more exotic flavour combinations he likes to play with; sous chef William prefers the duck with burnt honey gel, coffee powder and sesame. 

Who to know: Head chef Ben Murphy – very likely a star chef of the future. Try to get a seat at the chef’s table, from where Ben will personally talk you through each dish, and from where you can marvel at the discipline and quiet focus of his young team.

Don’t leave without: Heading upstairs to the Churchill Lounge on a Friday or Saturday when you can enjoy Signature Serve cocktails from head barman Xavier Mazo Mendes (formerly of Bluebird on the King’s Road) and oysters from the seafood bar. There is usually a pianist playing, too.

The Woodford, 159 High Rd, South Woodford, London E18 2PA

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