Jesse Dunford Wood's Parlour in London's Kensal Green is a surreal and unique experience. Lee Williams pays a visit
You know it's going to be an unusual night when the chef uncorks a bottle of Prosecco with a machete. Even so, you'd be forgiven for not guessing it will end with the ‘Oompa-Loompa Song' from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory blasting in your ears, dry ice in your face and the same chef squirting chocolate sauce, Jackson Pollock-style, directly onto the table.
Apparently, however, this is just a normal night at Parlour, a fine-dining pub in north west London's Kensal Green, where the chef's table experience is like a dream trip into the weird and wonderful mind of chef, owner and resident Willy Wonka, Jesse Dunford Wood.
"I want it to be remarkable here in as many ways as possible," says Dunford Wood, whose mischievous smile, deranged hair and elfin features fit the slightly otherworldly feel of the place perfectly. "How often do you get a waiter with an industrial blowtorch at your table for your three-year-old kid who's ordered a toasted marshmallow wagon wheel?" Indeed.
This sense of fun, theatricality and humour is expressed on the menu in dishes like McTucky's popcorn chicken nuggets (£6), a dish based on a famous fast-food chain but with real popcorn alongside the chicken, or naïve chocolate salted caramel Rolos (£4), a take on the much-loved sweet, or chestnut hummus with rosemary pitta bread (£6.50), a dish that had its genesis when one of the
chefs mistook chestnuts for chickpeas when preparing the hummus, or so the story goes.
Theatricality, however, is only one side of the Parlour experience. By day, this is a normal London pub serving all-day breakfasts (£12.75) and Sunday roasts (£14-£17) and where customers are encouraged to settle down with a coffee, a paper or a laptop and while away a few hours in a homely setting. "We need to be really approachable in what we do because of the business we are," says Dunford Wood.
"It's not a fine-dining destination place - although it can be that sometimes - but it's a very everyday
place to lots of people." Creativity, experimentation and evolution of new dishes come via the set lunch and dinner menus (£10 and £18), which include two courses with homemade bread. This menu sees three new dishes every week, the most successful of which make it on to the Á la carte.
Tuesday is when new dishes are trialled and, depending on whether you come at two or three o'clock, you might have varying versions of the same dish as it evolves. Despite its slightly haphazard nature, the set menu remains popular with a group of loyal and trusting customers, who Dunford Wood refers to affectionately as his "guinea pigs".
"Half the people don't even look at the menu," he says. "They just wait to see what's put in front of them, and that's nice."
Jesse Dunford Wood
Dunford Wood learned his trade under a parade of great chefs, including Michael Caines, Mark Best and Rowley Leigh, but his theatrical side comes from his time in Chicago with the legendary Charlie Trotter, inventor of the chef's table. Dunford Wood's take on Trotter's now slightly jaded innovation is like a breath of fresh - if somewhat hallucinogenic - air. Described by someone as a "tsunami of food", it is a breathless race through Parlour's menus, mixing old favourites with some of Dunford Wood's latest and more experimental creations. "It's the chef's table taken to the next
level," as he puts is. "It's where I go full force."
The surreal climax is the dessert course, where the diners are fitted with large headphones adorned with flashing lights. As they wait in slightly bemused anticipation, the theme tune to 2001: A Space Odyssey rumbles ominously in their ears. Suddenly dry ice drifts across the table from a hidden smoke
machine. The music changes to the 'Oompa-Loompa Song', followed by 'Flight of the Bumblebee',
while out of the smoke looms the chef, also wearing headphones and brandishing bottles of dessert sauces.
A tin foil sheet is unrolled across the table and he proceeds to dress it directly with the sweeps, dollops and flicks of an abstract expressionist painter. Dessert items, from soufflés to macaroons, cakes, tarts, meringues and arctic rolls are dotted randomly between splashes of sauce to the sound of 'Pure Imagination' from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and 'A Spoonful of Sugar' from Mary Poppins.
Pork chop and tomato salad
By the time it's done and Dunford Wood comes to collect the headphones, hanging them - slightly alarmingly - on his machete, you are left feeling pleasantly bamboozled, very, very full and slightly suspicious that there may have been something more than just alcohol in the wine. One thing you definitely leave with is a smile on your face and a sense that you have had a singular journey into the
(slightly twisted) mind of a top chef.
"I love people and my way of connecting is touching them with food," says Dunford Wood by way of explanation and this sentiment, you sense, is as heartfelt as the food.
5 Regent Street, Kensal Green, London NW10 5LG
From the menu
- Grown-up strawberry and gin fruit cup £6.50
- Funky French radishes with English butter £5
- Fish soup with prawn(less) crackers and 'caviar' £5.50
- Grilled English asparagus and fried bread £8.50
- 'Back door' smoked salmon and that soda bread £9.50
- Sea trout, samphire, asparagus and seaweed £16
- Grilled darne of plaice, courgettes and lemon £16.50
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