Even as this weekend’s hammering rain has reminded us of the fixed nature of our island geography (what a laugh, by the way, to discover that eating out is now a kind of special forces hell week feat of endurance), London’s actual restaurant landscape has never felt more in flux.
Dalston stalwart Rita’s is rematerialising in Soho, modish Chelsea seafood bar The Sea, The Sea is branching out to Haggerston, and now, most thrillingly of all, Fenn — a new venture from the people behind Hackney’s sustainability-driven Nest — has landed in the unheralded wilds of Fulham to cement the theory that post-pandemic hospitality really will be all about spectacular neighbourhood dining.
Let me just say it: here, at the distant edge of what is perceived as red trouser country, is a cool, cutting-edge enterprise that is, unquestionably, the best new restaurant I’ve visited since outdoor dining resumed — although, in truth, Fenn (which, unsexily, is old English for low-lying wetland) isn’t a new venue as much as an established place that has had a degree of newness thrust upon it.
Originally launched in late 2018 as Harlequin — an affordable fine dining spot with a pronounced Afrikaans accent — the pandemic-enforced departure of its South African chef James Erasmus prompted a swift rebrand and change of tack. The result feels more aligned with Nest’s homespun, modern British ethos.
This sense starts with a terrace that is both hilariously tiny and a triumph of sylvan form and function. Sheltered from the snarl of traffic on Wandsworth Bridge Road, it’s a retractable roofed 14-cover den (there are 30 seats in the indoor dining area), peppered with bursts of foliage, strategically placed mirrors, festoon lights, copper saucepan plant pots and flying saucer overhead heaters that give the vaguely steampunk impression of a verdant Tardis interior. “Wow,” said my cousin Toks, admiringly, as we squeezed into our sunny Friday lunchtime table, raising our little post-arrival glasses of Villages IPA beside a big, happy table of female mates.
And, thankfully, the Fenn team — rounded out by new head chef and Anglo alumnus Joe Laker — manage to transfer this aesthetic sure-footedness to the food. Lincolnshire poacher dumplings brought a pyramid of soft, yielding pillows primed with a fearsome lick of mustard. Their luxe Fenn Fried Chicken (usually the sort of overly genteel thing to send you sprinting to the nearest Morley’s) was all dribblingly moist bird, cragged, high-definition crunch and intricate, cayenne-heavy spicing. Beef tartare was reborn as a fiery bovine sun of coarse-chunked meat, slicked with a properly infernal fermented chilli sauce.
As it built and built, the relentless level of control, technique and explosive flavour was stupefying
I know that when a reported meal is this good, when the upward trajectory of it is so obvious, it can feel a little like a litany. But, honestly, it bears repeating. And as it built and built, as a flawlessly cooked scallop in a thick, silty puddle of roasted chicken butter and pistachio sauce made way for succulent lamb belly beside a creamy swirl of mash, the relentless level of control, technique and explosive flavour was almost stupefying.
Yes, there were a couple of underpowered vegetarian dishes along the way (confit duck egg yolk aboard a forest floor of wild mushrooms; beetroot, candied walnuts and goats curd offering perhaps too much unleavened sweetness), yet it hardly mattered.
We polished off a wibbling brutalist block of nutmeg custard tart, swirled the last of our glasses of luscious Italian Ruminat Primitivo (from the exhaustive, largely low-intervention list), and reeled a little that this level of capital-C cooking was available at such a crazily appealing price (seven courses of the best things on the menu cost £50 per person).
The people behind Fenn have turned a tiny space named after a bog into something dazzling that now blips and pulses on my own personal eating map of the city. This transformative era, it seems, still has a few happy surprises left.