Quo Vadis, London
The restaurant business harbours very few secrets. The wholesale prices of any restaurant’s main suppliers are invariably widely known to the competition, as are the pay rates required to hire all the necessary staff. The emergence of winesearcher.com now allows a customer to check the prices a restaurateur is paying for its wines, while the volume of rubbish sacks on the pavement at the end of the evening provides a very direct indication of sales.
While researching my book, The Art of The Restaurateur, which Phaidon will publish in the autumn, I came to realise, however, that there is one area that continues to be dealt with in utmost secrecy: how restaurateurs meet, put to the test and hire a potential new chef.
This can be extremely awkward: if the restaurateur appears too frequently at the proposed chef’s restaurant, this will alert his current employer, while bringing a stranger into the new restaurant will unnerve the chef in situ.
So hats off to Sam and Eddie Hart, who have lured chef Jeremy Lee away from the Blueprint Café after 16 years, to become their chef/partner at Quo Vadis, Soho – despite their secret meetings being rumbled on several occasions.
These included a lunch near Quo Vadis, after which I bumped into Lee cycling the wrong way down Dean Street; on the Eurostar, where they were spotted by another London chef; and over a furtive dinner in Spitalfields, where they ran into another journalist.
Lee’s transfer to Soho finally took place over the Christmas period, when the restaurant was closed and renovated. The former dark reception desk has been replaced by something much less imposing, and a wooden table, laden with loaves of bread, Seville oranges, Amalfi lemons and clementines, has been installed. Welcome to Soho by the Mediterranean, it shouts.
Inside the bar, the ageless Jon Spiteri is on hand, sporting the round glasses, thick-stripe suits and winklepicker shoes that he has worn in every restaurant he has worked in, from St. John in the 1990s to here. The walls have been painted white, the paintings removed and the lighting made much more flattering.
Cleverly, as this is Soho, the bar gets the Lee treatment, too. There is an appetising cocktail of Campari, pomegranate and orange juice; three different sherries; manchets or small flat loaves, topped with smoked mackerel, anchovy and potted beef; and bar food such as baked salsify with Parmesan or a smoked eel and horseradish sandwich. These are simple dishes that could be cooked at home, though they are even better when left to a consummate professional.
But it is in the restaurant where the fun really begins, as soon as the new menu arrives. Printed with that day’s weather forecast in the top corner, it is a simple card with the main menu plus groupings of dishes: “bites” including a smooth bloater paste, similar in texture to a kipper pâté; oysters; and a pie of the day – on this occasion a rich hare filling topped with puff pastry.
Lee has settled immediately into a culinary groove. From the main menu’s five daily starters and four main courses, a smoked haddock and potato broth was heartening, while the long, pale green stems of sea kale elegantly graced the white plate alongside a rich butter sauce. Adam Tihany, the New York restaurant designer, was so impressed by the mackerel he was served, grilled whole alongside a cucumber and dill salad, that he promptly sent me a photo of it.
There is the same intelligence, technique and deftness of touch behind each day’s pudding menu which includes lemon posset and rhubarb; walnut meringue and quinces; and a small tower of three pieces of shortcake separated by a mixture of goat’s curd, lemon curd and marmalade that brought our meal to a sweet, tangy and very happy conclusion.
In hiring Lee, the Harts seem finally to have addressed the biggest challenge they inherited when they took over Quo Vadis three years ago: that, like many venerable restaurants, it appeared too formal for its location. It is now as lively as the rest of Soho, with a style of cooking that is exciting, vibrant and fresh. Those secret liaisons have proved most fruitful.
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26-29 Dean Street, London W1D, 0207 437 9585;