In a cramped central London, finding a large, unique space for a new restaurant can be nigh on impossible. Restauranteurs are venturing further out from Zone 1 and finding some stunning sites. One of the most unique new restaurants in the capital is just round the corner from sleepy Chiswick Common.
No. 197 Chiswick Fire Station isn’t the first to renovate a disused fire station; if you’re a Londoner and haven’t heard of Chiltern Firehouse it’s time for you to come out from under that rock! But I’m not genrealizing here, the two have taken rather different approaches.
Upon first glimpse, No. 197 Chiswick is smart yet understated. There’s no grandiose sign outside, just classic white canopies protruding from the beautiful arched windows, covering the modest outdoor seating. Stepping inside from a wonderfully crisp October evening you walk through a large curtain, like many classic brasseries. It gives everyone a wonderful fleeting moment of fame as many diners and drinkers turn their heads like meerkats to welcome you.
As we waited to be seated we soaked up the buzzing atmosphere; something somewhat surprising for a Wednesday when nearly the whole population tunes into The Great British Bake Off (my money’s on Candice) at least in it’s current guise…don’t get me started. White washed walls and floorboards make the space feel even more enormous than it already is. The bar is quite the centrepiece with lights, glass racks and iron shelves stretching down from the high ceiling. It’s a hive of activity with guests ordering and staff flying in and around it. A mix of reclaimed and refreshed seating and quaint wooden booths are the stuff of Nordic interior designers’ dreams — it’s almost begging to be Instagrammed.
Many of my friends have visited No. 197 Chiswick Fire Station for drinks but hadn’t tried the food, something I found slightly unnerving. But one look at the drinks menu instilled me with renewed confidence; it has a whole section dedicated to Old Fashioneds (there’s even a tequila version!) If they aren’t your tipple of choice, there’s also a range of classic cocktails — including another excellently executed espresso martini — and some in-house concoctions. My friend Laura wasn’t on the sauce so tried a house lemonade and with her mouth still enjoying it’s first sip, thrust the glass into my face to try it — my god. Fresh berry and mint have never tasted so good. In fact, words can’t do it justice, it was ineffably good.
No. 197 Chiswick Fire Station serves breakfast through dinner out of a modest open kitchen which, again, made me feel a little anxious after seeing how many guests were dining. This time I was proven right as manager Marek informed us food would be delayed by 30 minutes due to a function. In 2016 that’s not really acceptable, managers and chefs know in advance how many people are booked in and should be ready for it. However, I sank back into my low, deep chair and set about working my way through the expansive menu, while sipping on a delightful Notting Hill Blonde.
To start we chose a selection from the ‘small + sharing’ section. As two Northerners would, we order four, which Marek greeted with raised eyebrows, but we knew what we were doing. Sadly our first choice of aubergine and sweet potato croquettes had sold out, but I took this as a sign of how good they were and made a note for next time. Instead we enjoyed a selection of crispy peppered squid, mushroom and parmesan crostini, chicken skewers and pulled pork tacos.
At first we were surprised by the cold crostini but it actually provided a nice alternative to the rest of the starters with cool, creamy mushrooms masking a hint of parmesan. Sadly the squid was not crispy and if there was any pepper it escaped both of us, the batter had soaked up any flavour from the squid and left a greasy taste in the mouth; utterly forgettable. The skewers and tacos were both triumphs in flavour, but both weren’t exactly hot when they arrived. The pork released a smokey spice flavour as it melted in the mouth, while the chicken had deep flavours and was matched perfectly with yoghurt. Overall, a mixed bag.
Trying to choose a main was equally as challenging as the starters, but we eventually settled on roast hake and slow cooked pork belly. Both packed in big, bold flavour combinations and were feasts for the eyes, as well as the belly. For sides, we stuck to post 2010 tradition with house fries — a mix of ordinary and sweet potato fries — and a truffle macaroni cheese.
The perfectly cooked, pearlescent white hake sat atop a bed of cauliflower puree, celeriac, capers and romanesco broccoli. Each mouthful brought waves of subtlety from the fish and cauliflower, followed by salt from the capers and smoked celeriac. The pork belly at first glimpse looked to be crying out for a sauce, but the first forkful (a typically heaped forkful) revealed intensely succulent meat with a sumptuous chorizo and black bean stew. While there were large pockets of fat, the slow cooking emphasised just how good this cut can be. And paired with a deep, dark stew, I was in heaven with every morsel.
The way to my heart has, and always will be a cracking macaroni cheese, so imagine my excitement at the inclusion of truffle, the fungus of royalty. Usually used sparingly to garnish a dish, Lord knows how much No. 197 Chiswick Fire Station must pay for the amount of truffle they use in this side! I had almost walked out when Laura revealed she had never eaten macaroni cheese before, so after a (not so) brief scolding I insisted we order it — I wish we hadn’t. The chef had gone totally overboard with the truffle and smothered the life out of the cheese sauce. This was more truffle macaroni, with cheese, and I wasn’t best pleased. I’m still struggling to get over it.
After leaving the average sides to sit sorrily on the table, we waved white flags upon our finishing our mains, for once leaving too little room for the desserts. As Marek cleared the table, he insisted that we would be missing out, but feeling like Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda, I couldn’t even face looking at another menu.
Perhaps I should have heeded the warning signs from my friends who hadn’t dined at No. 197 Chiskwick Fire Station but for a venue that’s already widely renowned for it’s drinks, the food isn’t all bad. The dishes that were good, were great and truly commendable having come out of such a small kitchen. But aren’t 21st Century pubs really supposed to be about the drink, allowing the alcohol to smooth out the creases of imperfect food? I can forgive the blips, not just because of a stunning and fantastically photogenic venue but also for a menu with real variety. I’ll be back for more drinks and maybe I’ll leave room for dessert. No promises though.
197-199 chiswick high road
London, W4 2DR
Venue shots courtesy of No. 197 Chiswick Fire Station
Words by HQ