A version of this article about a newish London restaurant is published by the Financial Times. FFC, Fenn fried chicken, pictured above.
Restaurants emerge for a variety of different reasons: the ambitions of a talented chef, the combination of a husband and wife, or perhaps more simply because of the overriding charms of a particular location or building. But the reasons for the emergence of Fenn, an exciting, British-focused restaurant that recently opened on London’s Wandsworth Bridge Road, are more complex.
Fenn began life in the conversations that took place in Newcastle University ten years ago, where Toby Neill met Johnnie Crowe and Luke Wasserman. They talked, and dreamt of opening a restaurant, before Neill and Wasserman took far more sensible paths with Crowe alone pursuing his culinary dream.
Neill worked for Grant Thornton in a division called Investors in People, in which he visited companies across the UK and delved into their people-management strategies. Here he was struck by one particular phenomenon. Whereas staff turnover for most businesses across the UK was 20%, in the restaurant industry this was as high as 90% and it was not difficult to see the reasons why.
This division was closed down at the same time that Crowe and Wasserman were also looking to move on. In January 2017 all three put in £1,000 and for the rest of that year they each worked at various pop-ups around the country until they felt that they had enough capital, which, given the relatively small amount raised, had to be invested in east London. In early 2018 they opened Nest, a successful set-menu restaurant in Hackney, which laid down two markers for Fenn.
The first was to do a lot of the renovation themselves, while the second went to the heart of what Neill had always wanted. ‘I can say that for the first three years of the business (prior to COVID) we had 0% staff turnover at both restaurants; we even employ the same kitchen porter from our first pop-up.’
Early in 2018, they decided to open a second restaurant closer to their homes in west London, and via Gumtree they found a former Indian restaurant on the Wandsworth Bridge Road. It required more work (Neill made all the tables) and in November 2018 they opened Harlequin, based around their South African chef, James Erasmus, which traded well.
That is of course until March 2020 when they were forced to close. Difficulties over furlough forced them to pay their staff wages from April to June 2020 out of their own pockets, a situation exacerbated early this year when Erasmus and his sous chef, around whom the restaurant had been based, left London. It was time for a fresh start.
And with it came the opportunity for some more DIY. The decision had been taken to rename the restaurant Fenn, after the old English word for a low-lying wetland, and to serve the local community more suitably by switching to an à la carte menu. And like several other spaces nearby, thanks to a particularly wide pavement, they could build a small terrace which allowed Fenn to serve over 35 customers a night at two sittings. This was my introduction to Fenn on a dark, rainy evening in late April.
But these less-than-promising conditions were completely offset by the warmth of the service, the quality of the cooking, and the adventurous approach of the wine list.
It is a menu that Joe Laker, the heavily tattooed chef, seems to have a lot of fun with. The 13 dishes on it are printed in a single column, not broken down into starters and main courses, an approach that works for both lunch and dinner.
At dinner, three of us began with a hand-dived scallop atop an equally rich and glistening roast chicken butter, a combination that worked surprisingly well. As good, although I was only allowed a taste, was Laker’s variation on KFC, here renamed FFC, the six nuggets of cleanly fried chicken topped with a tangy wild-garlic mayonnaise (pictured at the top of this article).
Our main courses were just as exciting. A fillet of halibut was enriched by a serving of Cornish crab and sea herbs, while a side dish of new season’s Jersey Royal potatoes was cleverly combined with asparagus and a pungent watercress sauce. Jancis chose the well-seasoned, high-quality steak tartare with fermented chilli and smoked oil, shown below. Desserts were good although Jancis, an expert on this particular course, described the salted-caramel ice cream as ‘rather watery’.
A return lunch was equally good. A pyramid of small, cylindrical dumplings of Lincolnshire Poacher cheese was extremely attractive, as was a fillet of cod with crab and a lip-smacking bouillabaisse sauce. And the dessert section redeemed itself with a fine rendition of a slice of nutmeg custard tart whose sweetness was offset by poached Yorkshire rhubarb.
The wine list is really adventurous in a good way and is also clearly laid out. Whites are listed from fresh, clean and bright to rich, rounded and ripe; reds from light to juicy and fruit-led, to full bodied and rich, which has to be the most customer-friendly approach. From this we drank a bottle of Verdejo Maquina y Tabla 2018 from Rueda and a bottle of 2016 Pinot Noir Enderle & Moll at dinner (for which my bill came to £290 for four). At lunch we drank, via Coravin, two glasses of 2019 De Moor Bourgogne Aligoté and my total bill was £85 for two.
At both, the service was from a team of enthusiastic British men. Fenn will do well to hold on to them – but that after all was its genesis.
Fenn 194 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6 2UF; tel: +44 (0)207 371 9888