Beer, Butts And Bertha: New Restaurant John Doe Is A Smoky Stunner

Ben Norum
By Ben Norum Last edited 43 months ago
Beer, Butts And Bertha: New Restaurant John Doe Is A Smoky Stunner ★★★★☆ 4
Atmospheric: counter dining
Atmospheric: counter dining
Best: bone marrow
Best: bone marrow
Head chef: Bertha
Head chef: Bertha
No butts: plated partridge
No butts: plated partridge

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

John Doe opened with barely a whisper last October on the eastern stretch of Golborne Road, away from the bustle of Portobello. There’s no well-known name behind it, no big marketing push and not much by way of social media hype.

Appropriate really, given it takes its name from the term used — in legal speak as well as slang — for an unknown male or an unidentified corpse.

But there could be few restaurants more alive or less faceless than this. It specialises, quirkily, in venison and other game — referenced in the Doe part of the name, perhaps? — and cooks almost everything over wood and charcoal. A long bar, which doubles as a kitchen pass, allows full view of dishes being created and prime earshot of pop songs being desecrated by the team. Front-of-house chat and mingle as if with friends, and while there are plenty of wines — including natural — they play second fiddle to a hefty list of speciality beers.

It’s not just the concept that’s neat — it’s the cooking too. On board with the carnivorous nature of the spot, we start with a tartare of gently smoked roe deer (£7) and a plate of roasted bone marrow (£8). The tartare is studded with parsley, shallots and capers and topped with a quail yolk. It’s triumphant, with a hint of smoke doing well to soften and make seductive the edginess of the raw game. The meltingly gooey, buttery marrow is even better. In fact, it's the best we’ve tried — and yes, that does include at St. John in Clerkenwell, where Fergus Henderson invented the concept of nose-to-tail eating eating and a bone marrow and parsley salad is the signature serve.

Having cooked it in error, a chef also brings us a plate of grilled octopus with chickpeas and aioli (£8). The tingle of raw garlic, the whiff of wood smoke and the vivid warmth of a little paprika are a subtle, clever combination delivered from the Med — we’re glad of the mistake.

Our mains are both cooked by Bertha — a lady who could perhaps be considered John Doe’s head chef. Only she’s not a lady at all, she’s a lean, mean, pale blue cooking machine. She’s the high-end charcoal oven which endows dishes with the heady, woody smokiness reminiscent of crackling log cabin fires, the burning twigs of bonfires and the alfresco grills of Mediterranean holiday spots. All on Golborne Road.

Beer butt partridge (£17) has something of the Deep South about it. It’s so called as the game birds are impaled on mini beer cans for cooking, allowing the brew’s flavours to permeate their flesh. As well as enjoying a snigger at the poor creatures’ expense, there's fun to be had in being able to choose the beer for our bird — and then trying to identify its flavours when tucking into its incredibly moist Barbie pink flesh. Accompanying gloopy mac and cheese is made with stinking bishop, and might just be the most successful thing religion has ever had a hand in.

A bacon joint (£15), made from belly and cooked over beans for more than 24 hours is pig at its most melting, wobbly and juicy. A sharp apple sauce laced with horseradish cuts through the crackle. It goes well with a fiercely hoppy Jaipur from Thornbridge brewery.

A rice pudding comes with a pleasantly sharp rhubarb compote (£6) but hasn’t been cooked long enough for the rice to break down and become creamy, rendering it something of a wet risotto. Perhaps Bertha was full of bacon. A chocolate fondant (£7) is molten-centred and does everything a chocolate fondant needs to, but not a huge amount more. You can’t win them all — John Doe’s strength lies in its savouries.

Unlike a John Doe of the extinct variety, there’s no box to put this excellent new eatery in. And that’s great. With its British outlook, Mediterranean flair and US influences, its beer, its venison, its smoke and its singing — John Doe is a unique offering.

John Doe is at 46 Golborne Road, W10 5PR.

Last Updated 30 January 2015