It's very rare for a food critic to discover a completely new concept in fine dining, but this week I think I've found one: an upmarket theme restaurant. Normally, anywhere with a theme--the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, Ed's Diner--is only one step removed from McDonald's. But Bumpkin is different. It undoubtedly has a theme--it's for "city folk who like a little country living", apparently--yet it's pitched at a sophisticated, metropolitan demographic. What on earth's going on?
At first, I thought the fact that it was in Notting Hill would throw some light on the matter. I assumed that Bumpkin was an ironic theme restaurant, that it was simply quoting a downmarket trend without actually embracing it. But a visit to Bumpkin, which is located on Westbourne Park Road, soon puts paid to this. True, the waiters and waitresses wear t-shirts that proclaim they are "Country Boys" and "Country Girls", but they don't seem remotely embarrassed by them. (This could be because they are nearly all Antipodean and, therefore, don't know the meaning of the word "embarrassment".) On the contrary, they appear to enthusiastically embrace the idea that Bumpkin is a little slice of rural England in the middle of the nation's capital.
"Our head chef is from Lancashire," explains the manager, Rupert Reynolds-MacLean, "and a lot of stuff on the menu is the food he grew up with."
This horny-handed yokel turns out to be Oliver Prince, formerly the head chef of the private members' dining room at the Electric--which is about as far from Lancashire as it's possible to get without leaving these shores. Yet he, too, seems to have taken the country theme to heart. A notice on the menu informs customers that the majority of the fruit and vegetables are from Secretts Farm, just outside Guildford. "We love them because they don't use any chemicals or pesticides," it says. No trace of irony there, either.
Thankfully, the rustic theme doesn't extend to the interior, unless you count the fact that the wall lights are wrapped in Kentish hopsacking. Designed by Sophie Douglas, it's tricked out like a psychedelic version of William Morris's Thames-side house in Hammersmith, with garish, flowery wallpaper and plain wooden furnishings. On the ground floor is the brasserie, which boasts a no-reservations policy, while the dining room is on the first floor and the upper two floors are reserved for private functions.
Whatever objections I have about Bumpkin are silenced as soon as the food arrives. Admittedly, my salad of smoked mackerel, beetroot and horseradish is slightly over-dressed, but the Scotch quails eggs are absolutely exquisite and my main course, which consists of a Gloucester Old Spot pork chop with a side order of wilted spinach, is an out-and-out showstopper. I think it may be the best pork chop I've ever had. My wife, too, is very happy with her chunky vegetable soup and macaroni cheese. She declares the latter even better than it is at Highroad House, which is currently our favourite Sunday brunch destination. As far as my wife's concerned--she's pregnant and has become completely fixated on mac and cheese--praise doesn't come much higher than that.
Bumpkin is the latest offering from the Ignite Group, the Matt Hermer-owned outfit that also boasts Cocoon and Boujis, Prince Harry's favourite nightclub. I don't know how he came up with the idea of an upmarket theme restaurant, but all credit to him: Bumpkin, which opened last November, is an instant hit with the Notting Hillbillies. At weekends, it's so crowded that if you want to have Sunday lunch here you'll have to book five days in advance. Even on weekdays, the wait for tables in the downstairs brasserie can be as long as 30 minutes.
It's not every day that you come across a culinary experiment as bold as Bumpkin so congratulations to Matt Hermer for having pulled it off. What's next? A downmarket Gordon Ramsay restaurant? Now that really would take the ... Oh hang on a minute. Hasn't he just bought a pub in Maida Vale? Watch this space.