Some restaurants lurk in my journal for weeks on end, instilling mild anxiety instead of joyous anticipation. Fiend was one such example. It began with the name, which does not whisper equanimity, dreaminess or delight. Fiend, in my opinion, is a demonic, possibly green, gnome-like being who waits in a dark alley on behalf of Satan himself. You would have to be a specific type of chef to set up a rather dark and bizarre restaurant on Portobello Road and call yourself Fiend.
Chris Denney is that person. A look back at interviews the chef gave about his previous venture, the cult hit 108 Garage, brings up some refreshing unfiltered quotes. “He speaks as he finds”, as my grandmother would say. The Fiend website simply underscores the idea that one is about to be ambushed. This, I read, will be a “provocative, rebellious and inspired” night of eating “kurobuta belly with eel glaze and sea fennel” or “diver scallops with yellow sauce and kent mango” or other Ks and Zs sounding sentences that they sit on the menu like barbed wire, not even trying to sound delicious but rather intriguing.
Baked Celery at Fiend, London W10: “Possibly the most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year.” Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
Fiend is “vibrant, bohemian” and is at the “epicenter” of Portobello. The word bohemian used in conjunction with restaurants always raises alarm bells, as I envision a Helena Bonham Carter type smoking in a room that smells of stale orchids and cat urine. However, at Fiend one can understand bohemian to mean that diners need to prepare to be relaxed, cool and open to anything or, if you’re over 35, be able to feign “groovy” in short, effervescent bursts, while changing his bifocals to read the menu in a room darker than the Margate Shell Grotto. I mean literally: Fiend’s walls are black. Like when Adrian Mole painted over his Noddy wallpaper. And into this blackness is the restaurant manager, who is absolutely charming and very enthusiastic, while also looking like a Tim Burton character who would be deep into A Flock of Seagulls.
If you’re already exhausted from the few minutes you spent reading this review, may I tell you that I spent three hours there, waving the flashlight on my phone as I said, “I think this says lamb heart agnolotti with mustard dashi? But does that really make sense? It looks like something Louis Cyphre ate at Angel Heart. The answer is yes – it was a fragrant bowl of entrails in broth with a bit of pasta, more like a Japanese version of pierogi. A tasting menu is available, but my guest Hugh and I chose a la carte. Wafers of bright wagyu salami appeared, followed by warm brioche and chicken liver parfait. For me, the star of the Fiend show is a slice of salt-baked celeriac—possibly the most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year—topped with a weird, earthy, addictive concoction Denney calls “pistachio mushroom granola” and finished with Hollandese sauce. .
Venison with Prune at Fiend, London W10: ‘Gothic in the Extreme’. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
Portions are small, carbs and weight are low on the ground. Cured sea trout, for example, is a subtle dish that blends with pink fish, goat yogurt, puffed rice, horseradish, and raw apple. A single, heavily titivated burnt leek is packed with chewy black radish and a gochujang dressing. Cucumber dill sorbet palate cleansers are oddly life-changing. A main course of venison with prunes is gothic in the extreme, especially to eat it in a fancy west London bat cave.
From the dessert menu, we chose the savarin with rum with coconut and pineapple. This is a dangerously boozy pina colada rum baba, the likes of which I have never seen served in the UK before. Another scoop of rich, textured black cherry sorbet was also outstanding.
Pineapple Coconut Rum Savarin in Fiend: ‘Dangerously Drunk’. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
I’m not convinced that Fiend is the ideal setting for Denney to deliver this weird, safe, experimental, and definitely delicious menu. Clearly he’s a passionate character, and this menu of his wacky schemes gone right would be better suited to a 10- or 12-seat bijou chef’s table-style adventure, where he could talk and show off all the wacky techniques and processes. Instead, Fiend is a spacious two-story venue with an open kitchen positioned away from diners. There is a large cocktail bar on the ground floor, currently out of service. The entrance to the restaurant has a long counter with seats, which on the night we visited absolutely no one was using.
However, I know that Denney is a great talent and his team is one of the best in the country. I left Fiend strangely hungry but brimming with ideas. The menu was smart, focused, deliciously erratic, and slightly disconcerting. Fiend sounds like being kidnapped by some nefarious presence. The more I think about Denney’s kitchen, the more it feels perfect.
Devil 301 Portobello Road, London W10, 020-3971 8404. Open Tuesday 6pm to midnight, Wednesday to Thursday 11am to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11am to 1am About £70 per head a la carte, plus drinks and service.