Food by John Lawson

92 Leigh Road



01702 840 904


The Food:

Gluten-free bread served with cultured cashew and wild garlic flower butter

Gem lettuce cup with broad beans, radish, mint, elderflower and chive flower, homemade elderflower syrup and lemon

Courgette Vichyssoise with cashew cream and spinach

New potatoes served with broad beans, wood sorrel cream and spring onion

Hake with sea beets and fennel fronds

Wild boar with Doris plum, wild garlic, nettle purée, Jack-by-the-hedge and a red wine jus

Gingerbread and meringue with yuzu curd and Mata powder

Nettle cupcakes

The Wines:

2015 Domaine Marcel et Blanche Fèvre Chablis Fourchaume 1er Cru                    90
2015 Neudorf Tom's Block Pinot Noir 88?
2017 Jean Foillard Morgon Côte du Py 94

A consequence of growing up in the gastronomic wasteland of Leigh-on-Sea is that my culinary horizons extended no further than fish and chips, meat and vegetables, and Sunday roast. Granted, my hometown has its local delicacies, though the mere thought of jellied eel makes my stomach churn. Come to think of it, there was the Old Vienna, a rather imposing restaurant that specialized in Austrian cuisine. Had Michelin inspectors accounted for live oompah bands, then I have little doubt it would have been hailed as the “El Bulli of Essex” instead of being reduced to a pile of rubble and mangled trombone. Haute cuisine for this teenager was overcooked steak and chips. That’s no joke; that’s how it was. Only when I escaped Leigh-on-Sea did a vista of foreign cuisine open up before my inexperienced taste buds. I learned that Indian curry would not kill me and that steak cooked medium-rare instead of well-done actually tasted of something.

Chef John Lawson at work

Nowadays my peripatetic vocation allows me to relish all kinds of cuisines. I still return to Leigh-on-Sea, and thankfully, the restaurant scene has vastly improved since my childhood. Nevertheless, I never envisaged a day when a restaurant of the caliber of Food by John Lawson would lie but a five-minute walk from the house I grew up in. Its opening prompted rumors of an experienced chef creating food worth talking about: meticulously sourced ingredients, sublime combinations, dishes fit for gastronomes. So last December I booked a table to celebrate my forthcoming birthday and discover just how good it was, and maybe pen a Vinous Table.

The birthday celebration never happened. Days later, I discovered my heart condition. Dinner was cancelled. But I promised myself that John Lawson would mark my comeback from whatever lay ahead. Three weeks and a day after surgery, together with three of my oldest friends, I finally entered the restaurant four months later than planned. Being here at all felt like a personal triumph.

A parallel exists between my story and John Lawson’s. Lawson was a talented chef in his twenties with a stellar career beckoning. He already had an impressive CV, having trained with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, then with Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay before being awarded a “Chef’s Hat” for his own restaurant, No. 8 by John Lawson, in Melbourne. What could go wrong?

Gem lettuce cup with broad beans, radish, mint, elderflower and chive flower, homemade elderflower syrup and lemon

In May 2015 Lawson suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with a grade-two brain tumor. Subsequent complications resulted in brain damage and loss of speech. His whites would not be worn again for a long time – or maybe never. In October 2016 he was finally given the all-clear. Rather than re-entering the pressure-cooker environment of a large kitchen, he chose to open his own restaurant, which would give him autonomy and allow him to set his own pace and relearn/refine his skills. In June 2017, with little fanfare, Food by John Lawson opened in Leigh-on-Sea, and word of mouth was that this place was unlike any other in town. There is an enormous difference between opening a restaurant in a large city teeming with open-minded epicures and launching one in a provincial seaside town unaccustomed to fine dining, its denizens inured to ordinary fare. Will there be an audience for fine dining? Can you build repeat business? Are locals willing to pay London prices when they could nip over the road and order a chicken balti? Will you be perceived as a game-changer or a bit of a food snob? Is jellied eel on the menu?

The restaurant itself is small: 26 covers occupying a single room with an open kitchen at the far end, where you will find Lawson and a couple of budding sous-chefs. The decor is nothing fancy, but tastefully furnished and cozy (I particularly admire the cockle-shell-decorated lavatory). Cleverly, the smoked front window seals off the outside world, so that you forget you are in “the coastal town that they forgot to close down,” to quote Morrissey. There is one front-of-house, and her service was exemplary: welcoming, attentive, ready to answer questions and adroitly dealing with any dissatisfied feedback. The restaurant’s diminutive size obliges a set menu with a vegan option, so that essentially diners are served whatever is being prepared that day. That said, I was asked if there were any other dietary requirements, which there were, and they were catered for extremely well.

Courgette Vichyssoise with cashew cream and spinach

So what of the food by John Lawson?

It could be considered part of a trend for chefs to offer delicious, flavorsome dishes with one eye on customers’ well-being. Worried about your calorie intake? Fed up with feeling bloated and still struggling to digest your meal 48 hours later? Don’t worry; the chef will make sure you depart feeling good about yourself. Of the five main courses, only one featured red meat and three were vegetarian, incorporating vegetables from Sarah Green Organics in Tillingham. Given Lawson’s background, the healthy mantra is understandable, though it is not in-your-face or dictatorial. The freshness and meticulous sourcing of ingredients, subtle combinations and understated seasoning actually reminded me of Japanese kaiseki: natural, unimposing flavors in harmony with the season.

New potatoes served with broad beans, wood sorrel cream and spring onion

We began with gem lettuce cups, each filled with broad beans, radish, mint, elderflower and chive flower and lemon, dressed in a homemade elderflower syrup. It sounds so simple, and yet the key was that elderflower syrup, which lent a soothing honeyed note to the sharp radish and citrus flavors. Plus, it probably constitutes the healthiest opening dish I have ever eaten. My doctors would be pleased.

Hot on its heels came one of the standouts of the evening, a courgette (zucchini) Vichyssoise with cashew cream and spinach. As a finicky eater not partial to courgettes, I was surprised to find myself resisting the temptation to lick the bowl clean. The cashew cream combined brilliantly with the Parisian-sourced courgettes and displayed perfect consistency. It’s the detail that elevated this outstanding dish.

Hake with sea beets and fennel fronds

We maintained the healthy vegetable theme with new potatoes served with broad beans, wood sorrel cream and spring onion. The sorrel married perfectly with the earthy new potatoes. Here I might think about adding another ingredient into the mix, something that would not detract from the purity of the cream – maybe char-grilled asparagus? This came with gluten-free bread served with cultured cashew and wild garlic flower butter. Post-surgery, I now eschew bread as much as possible, but I made an exception.

Since we were in a coastal town with its own bijou fishing port down in Old Leigh (where you will find the jellied eel, just in case your interest is piqued), I expected a lot from this course. The hake with sea beets and fennel fronds did not disappoint. The hake had a fabulous crispy skin and the flesh was mouthwateringly moist and flaky. I might have just toned down the fennel, which threatened to overwhelm this subtly flavored fish.

Wild boar with Doris plum, wild garlic, nettle purée, Jack-by-the-hedge and a red wine jus

The most divisive dish was the wild boar with Doris plum, wild garlic, nettle purée, Jack-by-the-hedge (garlic mustard) and a red wine jus. The boar had been slaughtered on the other side of the estuary in Kent. Cooked perfectly with just the right amount of cracked black pepper, it combined beautifully with the tangy sweetness of the Doris plum. Mine was to die for, though my fellow diners found theirs to be excessively chewy. Perhaps this is because it came from the neck, which can be more sinewy. Our front-of-house dealt with the complaint calmly, thanked us for the feedback and returned five minutes later with a replacement. Apparently these were better, although some slices remained too chewy. It’s a shame. I’ll blame the boar rather than the chef.

Thankfully, we finished on a high. My gluten-free friend was offered a quite stunning plate of fromage courtesy of the Saddleworth Cheese Company, established by Sean Wilson, the actor who played Martin Platt on Coronation Street for 21 years. (My American cousins will not understand the significance of this fact, but for fans of the world’s longest-running soap, it’s a big deal.) The pungently named Smelly Ha’peth blue cheese was outrageously good – creamy and nutty, powerful but not overpowering. The rest of us enjoyed a gingerbread meringue with yuzu curd and Mata powder, the latter ostensibly Japanese matcha tea. This was an intriguing, delicious combination of flavors that worked far better than expected. A round of nettle cupcakes followed (I would have liked just a tad more moistness here), and then we were finished.

Gingerbread and meringue with yuzu curd and Mata powder

The wine list does not offer a huge array of options. The absence of a cellar and lack of space no doubt curtails how much the restaurant can list. That said, they source their wines from the excellent Vino Vero, an independent retailer located just a couple of doors down the street. The list leans toward the organic/biodynamic side of things, and the wines are mainly commendable choices, with a small handwritten book of higher-end bottles for those willing to splash out. I ordered the 2015 Chablis Fourchaume 1er Cru from Domaine Marcel et Blanche Fèvre. I believe this label belongs to Nathalie and Gilles Fèvre, whose wines I have reviewed on Vinous. It might not have been a benchmark vintage like 2014, but this 2015 delivered an engaging Granny Smith apple and oyster shell nose, while the honeyed element often imparted by this vineyard was neatly contained. The palate was not as complex as the aromatics suggested, although the wine was well-balanced and offered crisp acidity, plenty of malic fruit and judicious bitterness on the finish.

I matched this with one of my favorite wines from Nelson in New Zealand, the 2015 Tom’s Block Pinot Noir from Neudorf. This 4.32-hectare vineyard was planted in 1999, so we are looking at some decent vine age now. I reviewed this wine last year and I must admit to being a wee bit disappointed by this bottle, finding the meaty, savory element stronger than a few months ago, erasing some of the nuance and detail. Perhaps it just requires more time. I would hold bottles back another couple of years, as it might be enduring an awkward phase. We finished with a 2017 Morgon Côte du Py from Jean Foillard, which showed up the Kiwi Pinot. The color was iridescent, the bouquet pure Gamay in full flight: copious blueberries, cassis, crushed violets and blood oranges, all delivered with superb delineation and brightness. The palate harnessed the vivacity and unpretentiousness of Gamay with fine tannins, pure, tart black and red fruit and veins of blueberry. There was a gentle but insistent grip on a finish of supreme length. An outstanding Beaujolais wine, but frankly, I expected nothing less from this producer.

Food by John Lawson lived up to my expectations. As someone who wishes to continue enjoying fine food but is now far more vigilant about health, I found it the ideal restaurant to mark my return. The fact that it is located in my hometown is remarkable, and indicative of how an appreciation of food has seeped into this area. Hopefully it will erode the prejudice against paying more for great food and a skilled chef. Too many people in the UK overpay for ordinary food, especially outside major cities where there can be far less choice. Want a nice tandoori? There’s a perfectly fine Indian over the road. Want a meal you will remember? At least now there is that option. I would like a slightly more expanded wine list, though. This standard of cooking deserves commensurate wine, and I would love to match some of Lawson’s dishes with a mature Burgundy or Bordeaux.

Of course, this particular dinner represents something far more than just another Vinous Table. It was this writer tentatively getting back in the saddle. Indeed, it marked the first time I had tasted wine in many weeks, just taking small sips to reacclimate a palate that was getting used to an abstemious life. Catching a taxi home, I felt the warm glow of having eaten well, and yet I had a nagging feeling that something was missing: something that could take Lawson to an even higher level, something that would really put it on the map. Then it hit me. John Lawson needs a live oompah band.