Rodells: Watford's Greatest Restaurant & Well Worth A Trip From London

Watford isn't renowned as the gastronomic centre of Britain, but with the genre-defying and invariably tasty Rodells, and its charistmatic head chef Mario, that could soon be about to change...
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Watford isn't renowned as the gastronomic centre of Britain, but with the genre-defying and invariably tasty Rodells, and its charistmatic head chef Mario, that could soon be about to change...

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It’s Friday night. You're on the Euston Road, you're hungry. You fancy some sort of South East Asian cuisine but don't fancy the schlepp over to Hackney or Dalston for Malaysian or Vietnamese food.

Then again, you might be tempted by a steak, yet you certainly don’t want the trek to Wimbledon or Earlsfield for a slab of South African animal protein. You are also sure that you don’t want to pay an extortionate amount for a flatiron steak in North London. And as for a trip into town to fight the hordes of tourist and day trippers in W1, forget it.

So what if I told you that there was a family run business that covered both options (and many more in between) that was only 25 minutes away?

Rodells is it.

I arrive just as a boisterous crowd has gathered in the downstairs bar for a drink and a good feed. Like the menu there's an eclectic mix of punters.

The bar staff are just the right side of friendly without being too earnest, and for those who like a drink that reminds them of a long lost summer holiday spent in Italy they have something I can honestly say I've never seen before on my travels: prosecco on tap.

Mario the owner/chef is an engaging character. He greets me with a firm handshake and a smile & immediately launches into a passionate discussion over the ethos of his food. With a background in music, pirate radio and the comic strip, and a million and one other things in between, if you want some engaging and outrageous chat about characters and schemes he encountered in the 1980s and 90s he is your man. If you’re not name checked by Mario then you simply weren’t part of the cultural history of those two contradictory decades.

Immediately I think of doing an interview about his life for a future feature.

But tonight it’s the food I’m here for.

I order a pint of Estrella and am shown upstairs to my table in the restaurant. Lads with trainers and casual gear are next to a table full of women earnestly discussing politics. The stark white-washed walls give the place a minimalist feel, or so I think, but I spot a projector above my head which is playing a 1960s film with the sound down onto the wall behind me.

The film appears to be Camelot with legendary carouser Richard Harris. Camelot is a castle and court associated with the legendary King Arthur. The film is a perfect metaphor as Rodells is Mario’s Camelot.

This is a place that defies initial impressions. The projector has been done before of course but it still feels like an original touch in a restaurant which doesn’t need gimmicks. As I am about to find out the food doesn’t need any outside help.

Some chefs I've met in the course of reviewing are great at patter, some are great cooks but are gruff - fair enough, it's the food I've come for if I wanted great conversation I'd try and summon the ghost of Peter Ustinov - but it's rare that you meet a chef with a personable nature who truly believes in his food in a completely non-pretentious way. Mario is such a type.

Even if, as he phrases it with a twinkle in his eye: “I’m a confrontational so and so who doesn’t take any nonsense”, adding, “I let my food speak for itself”.

If his food could speak it would be in a variety of different languages. Put simply Mario prepares world dish mixtures that change on a daily basis, re-inventing in his own way cuisines which connect to his childhood in Macau and his subsequent travels around the world.

And what food it is.

I ask my craggy waiter Shaun, who looks a bit Pete Postlethwaite-esque in appearance which pick and mix tapas style starters he would choose. He guides me through the list with care, interest and knowledge. I take his advice.

For my main I also am keen to try the flatiron steak that I have heard so much about.

I am also intrigued by the fact that they have prosecco on tap, so much so that I order one. Something I probably wouldn’t have done had I not felt so relaxed, even in a relatively laddish atmosphere.

As Shaun brings up the glass of prosecco he jokes with the girls’ table next to me about not 'laying into the mojitos just yet' as they embark on a discussion about class. Sensing I might not be the type of bloke who normally orders a prosecco he says good-naturedly to me, “Have you tasted it? Not bad for an organic one eh?” Again his complete lack of pretentiousness validates the fact that I have ordered something way out of my comfort range. It’s a nice touch which sums up Rodells: without airs or graces, unassuming but genuine.

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Another thing I notice about Rodells is that it appears genuinely classless. A couple of Essex lads next to me who, shall we say, appear to have been savouring their Friday night, amicably join in the discussion with a couple of middle class girls opposite.

I look around to see where the film is at on the wall expecting to see Richard Harris and am met by a disorientating image of Top Cat. I sense this is the effect that Rodells want to project: a challenge to the senses.

But Mario later shoots down my undeveloped theory, telling me when I ask him about the union of the two completely unconnected films, and whether the symbolism replicates what he is trying to do with a host of different nations food: “Why did I choose Top Cat? Cos I fucking like Top Cat? Who doesn’t like Top fucking Cat” roaring at me with a smile.

I am brought a bat with my three starters on it which Shaun recommended. Beef Rendang, Mongolian Chilli Beef and Jambalaya with prawns so large they should have had their own parking space.

Having spent time in Asia the succulent shreds of the Rendang immediately transport me back to any number of open air food night markets that I have eaten at. The other two starters vie for my attention but I simply can’t stop eating the Rendang. The flavour of coconut is apparent but never overpowering and the spice lingers without ever threatening.

The portions are well-appointed and generous. I eventually tear myself away from the Rendang for a try at the Mongolian Chilli Beef. I am not disappointed. The slithers of beef are soft, the sauce is hearty and flavoursome. It may feel incongruous eating a mixture of different flavours from different cuisines but the results, surprisingly, do not jar.

I think this even as I am sipping a dry organic tap poured prosecco with Top Cat talking to Officer Dibble behind me. I try the large prawns waiting on my third starter, the Jambalaya. There is no other word apart from delicious. The rice is soft and delicate but the jambalaya itself probably resides in third place. Yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t without merit - far from it - it simply means my other two starters have set the bar high. I happen to look around again and see Top Cat nodding at Officer Dibble this time. Even TC, it seems, is agreeing that the starters are good.

I have been encouraged to sample the flatiron steak by people who have tried it already. There have been bold claims as to its place in the steak league tables of the UK. It is a fierce market but what I would say it that it was worth the 25 minute ride to Rodells.

The presentation was a cross between fine dining and basic - the thin frites were served in a plastic bucket, a nod to the more earthy gourmet styles that are currently in vogue.

As for the Flatiron steak? Well, it was simply beef in excelsis.

For those unaware flatiron steak is the American name for the cut known as butlers' steak in the UK and oyster blade steak in Australia and New Zealand. It is cut with the grain, from the shoulder of the animal. Or as Mario tells me later over a drink: “Because it’s from the shoulder - cows only have two”, he adds impishly looking straight at me– “so you just can’t make a mistake. You only have one chance at it”.

Flatiron is literally a muscle of beef. Done badly it can make your jaws ache and taste like a rubber door stop. Done well and you can almost hear angels singing in praise of it. Or at the very least Fancy-Fancy, Spook, Benny the Ball, Brain, and Choo Choo from Hoagy's Alley agreeing with Top Cat that Rodells’ flatiron is sublime.

It was cooked how I like it - just the right side of rare with blood evident and a texture that allowed your molars a workout and your tastebuds a night out.

It was peppery, it was succulent, it was large enough to justify its more than reasonable price of £14.50. The side of dark lively mustard complemented the cut perfectly.

The slender chips were as good as anything found in a gourmet burger place. Even more so, as unlike their more formulaic and commercial counterparts they actually had character, in the fact that many of them were irregular curves rather than boring and straight.

Like Rodells itself they are flawlessly random.

As Macau-born Mario tells me, “I have been influenced by a lot of different cultures, through my family, my history and my travels which I may subconsciously bring to my menu [which changes daily] but it’s not rocket science. I just want people to eat genuine, real food that I think they would like. I hope people who come here “get” it but if they don’t then that’s fine too, so long as they like the food.”

We speak briefly about a particularly mean-spirited review on TripAdvisor. “We got slagged off by this group who said they didn’t like the food, didn’t like the place, didn’t like my staff. Yet they ate everything on their fucking table. That doesn’t strike me as people who didn’t like the food. If you don’t like the food you leave it after you’ve tasted it – you don’t carry on eating the whole fucking plate”.

Like his food Mario in full flow is mesmerising. The night is getting on but Mario pulls up a chair. He orders a beer for me, a whiskey for himself, and a round of mad-professor-style shots for the both of us including one that actually tasted of a Big Mac. (Unlike its more famous counterpart, it was far more memorable, albeit in an odd way.)

I get my notepad out, start my dodgy shorthand and Mario, in his Camelot, starts talking food, music, left-wing politics, travel, people and everything else in between.

If you're as London-centric as I am when it comes to eating out, then it does take something special to make me leave Zones One and Two, let alone my comfort zones.

Rodells is it.

1A St John's Rd, Watford, Hertfordshire WD17 1PU

Phone: 01923 229899

Rodells' website is here.