Some restaurants lurk in my diary for weeks, instilling mild anxiety rather than joyful anticipation. Fiend was one such example. It began with the name, which does not whisper equanimity, dreaminess or deliciousness. Fiend, to my mind, is a demonic, possibly green, gnome-like being, waiting in a dark alley on behalf of Satan himself. You’d need to be a specific kind of chef to set up a rather dark, strange restaurant on Portobello Road and call yourself Fiend.
Chris Denney is that person. A shufti through the interviews the chef gave about his previous venture, the cult hit 108 Garage, brings up some refreshingly unfiltered quotes. “He speaks as he finds,” as my old gran would say. Fiend’s website merely underlines the idea that one is about to be ambushed. This, I read, will be a “provocative, rebellious and inspired” evening of eating “kurobuta belly with eel glaze and rock samphire” or “diver scallop with yellow sauce and kent mango” or other sentences ringing with Ks and Zs that sit on the menu like barbed wire, not even attempting to sound delicious but, rather, intriguing.
Baked celeriac at Fiend, London W10: ‘Possibly the most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
Fiend is “vibrant, bohemian” and in the “epicentre” of Portobello. The word bohemian used in conjunction with restaurants always raises alarms, as I envisage a Helena Bonham Carter type smoking in a room that smells of stale orchids and cat piss. However, at Fiend one can take bohemian to mean that diners should prepare to be relaxed, groovy and open to anything, or, if you’re over 35, able to fake “groovy” in short, ebullient bursts, while rearranging your bifocals to read the menu in a room that is darker than Margate Shell Grotto. I mean, literally: Fiend’s walls are black. Like when Adrian Mole painted over his Noddy wallpaper. And into this blackness appears the restaurant manager, who is absolutely lovely and very enthusiastic, while also resembling a Tim Burton character who would be deeply into A Flock of Seagulls.
If you are already exhausted by the few minutes you have spent perusing this review, may I tell you I spent three hours there, waving my phone torch about while saying, “I think this says lamb heart agnolotti with mustard dashi? But does that really make sense? It sounds like something Louis Cyphre ate in Angel Heart.” The answer is yes: it was a fragrant bowl of innards in broth with a smattering of pasta, more like a Japanese take on pierogi. A tasting menu is available, but my guest Hugh and I chose à la carte. Wafery slivers of glossy wagyu salami appeared, followed by warm brioche and chicken liver parfait. For me, the star of Fiend’s show is a slice of salt-baked celeriac, possibly the most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year, covered in a bizarre, earthy, addictive concoction that Denney calls “mushroom pistachio granola” and finished with hollandaise.
Venison with prune at Fiend, London W10: ‘Gothic in the extreme.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
Portions are small, carbs and heft are thin on the ground. Cured sea trout, for example, is a subtle, melting bowl of pink fish, goat’s yoghurt, puffed rice, horseradish and raw apple. A single, heavily titivated burnt leek is littered with chewy black radish and a gochujang dressing. Palate cleansers of cucumber sorbet with dill are curiously life-changing. A main dish of venison with prune is gothic in the extreme, all the more so for eating it in an elegant west London bat cave.
From the dessert menu, we chose the rum savarin with coconut and pineapple. This is a perilously boozy piña colada rum baba – which I have never seen served in the UK before. A further scoop of rich, textured black cherry sorbet was also outstanding.
Rum savarin with coconut and pineapple at Fiend: ‘Perilously boozy.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
I am not convinced that Fiend is the ideal setting for Denney to deliver this odd, confident, experimental and definitely delicious menu. Clearly, he is a passionate character, and this menu of his harebrained schemes gone right would be more suited to a bijou chef’s table-style venture of 10 or 12 seats, where he could talk and display all the madcap techniques and processes. Instead, Fiend is a spacious, two-floor venue with an open kitchen situated far from the diners. There is a large cocktail bar downstairs, currently out of action. The entrance to the restaurant has a long bar with seats, which on the evening we visited absolutely nobody was using.
However, I know that Denney is a massive talent, and his team are some of the country’s best. I left Fiend oddly hungry but stuffed to the brim with ideas. The menu was clever, focused, deliciously erratic and ever so slightly bewildering. Fiend sounds like being hijacked by a nefarious presence. The more I think about Denney’s cooking, the more it feels perfectly fitting.
Fiend 301 Portobello Road, London W10, 020-3971 8404. Open Tue 6pm-midnight, Wed-Thu 11am-midnight, Fri-Sat 11am-1am. About £70 per head à la carte, plus drinks and service.