From many angles, Walnut has it cracked
Be prepared for great food while signing up to save the planet, says VICTORIA PREVER We re always being told what an exciting city London is for eating out – up there with Paris, New York and other culinarily blessed capitals. With a few exceptions (and at the risk of
Be prepared for great food while signing up to save the planet
We're always being told what an exciting city London is for eating out - up there with Paris, New York and other culinarily blessed capitals. With a few exceptions (and at the risk of receiving a flurry of indignant emails) most of that excitement is outside of north west London. For a long stretch of last year, we endured a good food drought of near biblical proportions. Everywhere I ate was at best, only average.
Several excellent meals I enjoyed in the Cotswolds over Christmas put anything I could find closer to home in the shade and highlighted how we now accept sub-standard grub and, despite a sizeable population of hungry, well-resourced diners, the NW postcodes were largely a culinary desert.
But I've been really encouraged by a few recent outings - both to new openings and to the odd old faithful. This week, I visited long-standing West Hampstead favourite, Walnut.
Open since 2001, I was aware of the place, but had never been sufficiently drawn to visit. Recently, word has reached me that co-owner and head chef, Aidan Doyle is a fully paid-up, Fairtrade cotton-wearing passenger on the sustainable/seasonal/local bandwagon.
"The Walnut Ethos" on the back of their menu smugly boasts of prioritising British (their use of highlighting not mine) seasonal produce, using "high quality properly nurtured ingredients... fresh sustainable fish and Fairtrade and organic coffee". But it doesn't stop there. They also boast of using plant-based cleaning products, energy saving devices (a hand whisk and wooden spoon perhaps) PLUS their staff cycle or walk to work or (and here comes the big sell) USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT. I'm surprised they don't interrogate their customers as to how they travelled there. Grumpy and I would have been immediately evicted.
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In keeping with the trend in many of West Hampstead's cafes and restaurants, the kitchen sits on a mezzanine at the back of the site, allowing a full view of Doyle, who's either (a) an exhibitionist, (b) a control freak or (c) nosey.
Impressively though, he storms though service as an army of one, aided only by a kitchen assistant and two front-of-house staff.
The menu changes seasonally and has a vast number of options - eight starters, 11 mains, plus no less than 16 side orders. Plenty of choices for both carnivores and vegetarians. After ordering, we were offered warm home-made bread, made from organic Suffolk flour (especially milled for the restaurant). Rosemary and garlic, walnut or brown.
As we were first in - closely followed by two or three more tables - our food was prompt. Grumpy's broccoli and stilton souffle had left the oven about a minute too early and was wobbling like Dawn French's bosom as it approached. It was pungently cheesey but would have been even better with a little more salt. Duck confit with spiced aubergine chutney was an immaculate, small tower of luscious, fatty duck on sweet chutney and salad leaves. It could have done with something to cut through the overall stickiness but was a good start.
By now, the dining room was filling up. Doyle clearly has a huge local following.
The menu offered grilled New Forest barramundi. While I was intrigued as to what an Australian fish was doing in a Hampshire medieval forest, I was equally keen to try the pollock, up there with coley as a feline favourite. Worries about sustainability have us stealing from the poor moggies' mouths as we work our way down the food chain.
Although beautifully cooked, it didn't win me over. I'm not convinced it's a fish to serve roasted, skin-on. The flesh, although perfectly cooked to moist and shiny perfection, wasn't packed with flavour. It reclined on a neat mound of thyme risotto, tasting mostly of white wine but also of thyme. A cheffy swoosh of rocket pesto added colour to the otherwise neutral plate. All well cooked, just not packed with flavour.
Grumpy's smoked haddock fish cakes had all the punch my pollock lacked. Fish is smoked in-house or in Doyle's garden. The two generous cakes were crisply bronzed, powerfully smoky and in need of the thyme and lemon mayonnaise they were served with.
Our side orders weren't cheap - at £3.95 each but the sweetly braised red cabbage was delicious and the chips hot and crisp.
Seasonal desserts included steamed jam suet pudding or apple pie with custard as well as a rhubarb and stem ginger souffle.
Thankfully, unlike some of the more ethically hardcore venues we've visited, the Walnut Ethos doesn't preclude chocolate. Our warm chocolate tart was made with "Divine" Fairtrade chocolate from cocoa beans from Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana. It was worth it. Definitely the best dessert we've tasted this year and possibly ever.
For all my picky criticisms, Walnut is a slick, well-oiled (energy-saving) machine serving expertly cooked, interesting food. The service is friendly and unpretentious and the atmosphere welcoming. Prices are marginally more than other local restaurants, but you get what you pay for. The tastes and flavours are as clean as your conscience when you leave - so long as you didn't drive.
Walnut, 280 West End Lane, NW6
Telephone: 020-7794 7772
Food: Four stars
Service: Five stars
Opening hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 6.30pm to 10.30pm.
Cost: £60.80, excluding service, for three courses including coffee. There is 20 per cent off your bill before 7.30pm Sundays to Thursdays.