Jay Rayner reviewed the BERTHA in the January 4th 2015 edition of the Observer Magazine. Here are some excerpts below:
Meet BERTHA. I like her… I’ve experienced what she can do, and what she can do is very pleasing indeed.. Without BERTHA I’m not entirely sure my lunch at John Doe, just off London’s Portobello Road, would have been worth writing to anywhere about, let alone home. With her, a set of humble ingredients were allowed to present the best of themselves. She’s that most admirable of things: an enabler. I won’t lie. I want BERTHA in my kitchen. After all, who wouldn’t want a serious chunk of bespoke wood-fired oven?
I first experienced cooking of this sort at Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Hills above San Sebastián, where the chef fashioned his own implements to enable him to cook literally everything over different kinds of woods for different ingredients. It was a personal mission verging on obsession. Ingredients sang. He smoked the milk for his ice cream and let caviar catch the hot wisps until the oils began to run.
John Doe is not quite on that scale, but the wood is used with enough intent to make a difference…
The result is a series of dishes with unapologetic heft; of platefuls which are unafraid of big flavours. Warm discs of octopus tentacle have a satisfying bite and a clean smokiness that I have not tasted since I was Greek island-hopping in the 1980s, when barbecue fish restaurants clustered along the harbour sides. The mess of chickpeas and the finely calibrated aioli do a good job of filling the gaps on the plate without contaminating your breath. Octopus is a diverting ingredient which does a lot of the work for you. It takes more skill to get something special out of a bunch of leeks, here roasted in ash until soft and served with a thick caper and tarragon vinaigrette, all aniseed and spark.
What’s interesting is the unexpected impact it has on certain ingredients. I’m not surprised that pristine mackerel fillets take kindly to the double treatment – a trip through the pellet smoker, a finish in Bertha – on top of leeks and mussels. These are foods that like to play rough and dirty. I am surprised, however, at the impact it has on a big piece of duck confit, served in a soupy mix of lentils, with a hint of mint. There is an extra crispness to the skin, a deepness to the flavour, a… oh, damn it… smokiness. For once, duck-fat-roasted potatoes are as crisp and golden and downright rude as you always hope they will be and so rarely are.
Victoria plums, with a scoop of thick mascarpone and an amaretti biscuit crumb, seem almost grateful for their time spent with BERTHA, the flavour concentrated, the flesh soft. The only clumsy dish is a banana and rum tarte tatin, which is quite simply burnt, in both caramel and pastry. With that much flame knocking around, it was always a possibility.
Starters are around £7, mains double that.
The truth is that none of the labels – organic, biodynamic, natural, Blue Nun – really matter. What matters is whether the wine contained in the bottle slapped with that label tastes nice or not. I have yet to taste a nice natural wine. My exposure to them is merely turning me in to a really big fan of traditional preservatives. Natural wine silliness aside, John Doe does not deserve to stay anonymous. It’s a simple idea executed with determination and, most importantly, good taste. And, of course, a little help from a gal called BERTHA.