Like its siblings, sAme sAme and Hôntô, Agnes does not make much noise from the outside. No flashy neon signs. No large portico. No LCD menus. Not that it needs to. To get a table you will need to book about three months in advance.
Located in an old warehouse with exposed bricks and peeling paint, in a quiet unassuming back street, just a small black and white sign tells you where it is. But once inside, it makes its mark. Agnes is the latest venture from Tyron Simon, Bianca Marchi and Frank Li, who have teamed up with Ben Williamson (ex-Gerard’s) to create a restaurant centred around wood-fired cooking, with two charcoal pits and a wood-fired oven.
In the open kitchen, there no conventional ovens, no gas tops – just flame and smoke. Ben’s menu is based around the use of wood fire. Ironbark, applewood, cherry wood and olive wood are used to impart their unique smoky flavours to the snacks, starters, mains, desserts and even the cocktails.
Start with a malted sourdough served with smoked cultured butter. The bread is dark, crisp on the outside but soft and warm inside with a treacle-like, smoky flavour – very more-ish. A blue mackerel sandwich is one of the snacks – a tender piece of freshly smoked mackerel with white ‘nduja and pickled garlic between two disks of soft white bread. Scallop doughnuts are scallops with preserved lemon, encased in a soft doughnut topped with green onion cream and Vietnamese mint – an explosion of flavours. Mouth-watering lamb ribs, with a pink centre and an earthy, smoked, charred crust are served with a soft paste of caramelised sesame whey sprinkled with mountain pepper.
The starters and mains are designed to share. Amongst the starters, don’t go past the wood-fired cabbage, with a piquant lacto koji butter topped with dried cured egg yolk. Simply divine.
The mains include a delicate brined roast chicken with harissa, smoked labne and curry leaf – tender and spicy. The dry-aged long-fed angus sirloin is beautifully cooked, charred on the outside and pink in the middle, with a delicate smoky flavour and served with caramelised onion jam. Team these with a variety of wood-fired vegetables.
There is an extensive wine list with some excellent wines by the glass. We chose to have our desserts upstairs on the terrace bar, savouring an elegant charred mango with sheep’s yoghurt and finger limes and a flavoursome apricot clafoutis with a rich Jersey milk ice-cream.
This is inspired, creative and satisfying food, and a meal experience well worth waiting for. If you want to get in, plan ahead and book early – or be spontaneous and call, as vacancies do pop up. It is worth getting there early and having a drink in the downstairs bar or on the rooftop terrace – with great views of the city. And if you can’t get a reservation, you can sample some of the menu at the bar. Definitely worth a detour.
By Jeremy Ryland