As team Arbutus gears up for a summer sequel, Anthony Demetre and Will Smith explain why they're keeping it simple
Anthony Demetre and Will Smith have a spring in their step. Little wonder, though; they've just had a bumper year at their Soho restaurant Arbutus, winning awards galore and serving upwards of 1,200 covers a week. And to cap off their annus mirabilis, they've just signed on a plum new site in Mayfair. If the as yet unnamed restaurant does even half as well as Arbutus when it opens in the summer, Demetre and Smith are going to need that extra energy. It's going to be a busy summer.
But for the time being, before things kick off at the new restaurant-thatwon't- remain-nameless and they're hoofing it from one to the other, it's a golden time at Arbutus. The chef and manager duo have been working together for a decade since they met at Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon. They evidently have a fantastic rapport, and on the sunny spring day when I meet them at Arbutus, they're brimming with enthusiasm, full of industry gossip and having fun firing new ideas – and potential names – at each other.
"Apicius?" "Taken." "St George?" (After the new address.) "Too British. And taken." (Feel free to weigh in here: they want an ‘A' word ideally; doesn't have to be another tree. Answers on a postcard.)
"We've been together for a while. We've evolved together," says Smith. "There aren't many managers and chefs who have worked together as a team for as long as we have."
It's to this long-term partnership and the mature vision that has come with it that they ascribe their success at Arbutus. Eschewing the trappings of fine dining, Arbutus offers keenly priced Modern French and European plats du jour and set menus, with all wines by the carafe. Sounds so simple in retrospect, but back then – ooh, all of 10 months ago – there really was nowhere quite like it. It gave Soho's dining scene a fillip and is sure to have a similar effect even in wealthy Mayfair.
"We weren't aggressively looking,"
insists Smith. "It just came up; slightly earlier than we might have liked, but that's the way it goes."
The new St George Street site is great news – and not only because it's within five minutes of Restaurant's office. It's on the former site of Drones Club (once owned by Marco Pierre White and Piers Adams, and more recently, by Ben Goldsmith, son of the late Sir James); it's a "lovely, clubby room" with oak panelling and is in good nick, having fairly recently been refurbished. It's also in their target area: maybe Covent Garden, maybe Mayfair, definitely central London. "We need to trade successfully at lunch and dinner,"
explains Smith. "That was our fear with somewhere in the suburbs. We were nervous about the lack of lunch trade, and when you're paying rent on a building, on every table, 24/7, you have to trade as much as you can." (Cue an impromptu brainstorm on the merits of breakfast service. Should they?
Shouldn't they? No conclusion was immediately forthcoming, but suffice it to say at this nascent stage of Arbutus #2, nothing's set in stone.)
"That The Square is so busy on Sunday evenings gives us confidence," adds Demetre, before adding hurriedly, "not that we are competing with them."
The Mayfair announcement will dash the hopes of their legion of fans hoping for a friendly neighbourhood Arbutus in every town and suburb in the country, but there will not be a chain of Arbutuses (Arbuti?). "We're not trying to replicate it. We can't," says Demetre firmly. "It's had all these awards. It's got a Michelin star. We can't set out to recreate that. It's too close to have two the same. The idea is to attract people to both, not to one or the other."
In other words, you can expect changes but they won't be throwing the baby out with the bath water. The plats du jour and £15.50 prix fixe will stay – yup, even in Mayfair, where an extra pound or two on the bill would probably go unnoticed; all wines will be available by the 250ml carafe, an Arbutus signature; they will remain proudly tablecloth and sideplatefree; they're opening seven days a week, starting early at 6pm (an hour later than Soho) and even offering an early evening menu. Mayfair won't know what's hit it.
Demetre insists that the likes of The Greenhouse, The Square and Sketch won't see Arbutus' little sister as a threat, but there's no denying that the possibility of dining out in Mayfair with just twenty quid in your pocket is going to cause ripples.
So, what's changing? They're upping the focus on the bar, having splashed out on a mother-of-pearl inlaid beauty.
Smith may add a little at the top end of the wine list once he's got a feel for the customers. But all eyes will be on the menu. Colin Kelly, Demetre's senior sous at Arbutus, is taking on the day-to-day running of the new kitchen and is already working on new dishes for ‘Restaurant X' with Demetre, so there's a repertoire ready and they're "not going in blind".
"Some dishes are synonymous with Arbutus: the Bouillabaisse, Pieds et Paquets (Lamb's Tripe Parcels and Trotters), the Squid and Mackerel ‘Burger' and the Braised Pig's Head.
Pieds et Paquets is Arbutus," says Demetre emphatically. "It's the only place in town that you can find it. I want to create something like that for the new place."
The contenders for the crown are many and various, but of the Mayfair-worthy dishes being trialled at Arbutus, so far Demetre is taken with the proper corned beef served in glass kilner jars. "That's the essence of our style: it's simple, but it takes technique. Not using the luxury end makes us work harder. You could teach your grandma how to cook scallops or a fillet steak, but brisket, bavette, offal, that's another matter."
He's also excited about whole chicken and lacquered duck to share, as well as the seafood they'll be including on the first summery menus.
"I've been doing plaice roasted on the bone with winkles. The plaice is just £1 a piece, so I know I can reflect my saving on the menu."
The kitchen won't veer from the ‘keep it simple' ethos of Arbutus. "Some of the things I did at Putney Bridge make me cringe," he admits with candour and a faint blush? "I was trying too hard. My style here has come with maturity. No glass plates, no square plates. I'm over all that. Now if I go out and order a piece of fish and it comes with nine garnishes, I just think, ‘But that's not why I ordered the fish!'
"I don't think it's just us; everybody's going back to basics." Even in Mayfair.
Arbutus, 63-64 Frith Street, London W1.
020 7734 4545 arbutusrestaurant.co.uk
Will Smith's wine matches from the Arbutus list
Squid and Mackerel Burger Riesling Berg Trocken, Anton Bauer, Donauland, Austria, 2004 "It's nice and crisp with a nice minerality, but is off-dry. You need something fresh to cut through the richness of the burger and that oily mackerel."
Pig's Head Pinotage, Seidelberg, Paarl, South Africa, 2005 "Again, this is quite fatty, a really unctuous dish. The pinotage is peppery, with white pepper on the edge. It's quite dry with a bit of acidity, a bit of tannin and great balance for the dish."
Rabbit Pinot Noir, Forrest Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2005 "Light, quite fresh, fruity with lots of red fruit fl avours. The rabbit needs something a little more delicate."
Lamb Nectar des Bertrands, Côte de Blaye, Bordeaux, France, 2002 "A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with just a little Cabernet Franc. It's a good weighty wine, but it's well-balanced."
Ile Flottante Barbera, Respizo di Vigna, Ca Carussin, Piedmont, N.V.
"The obvious thing to do would be to pair this with Sauternes, but this light fruit Barbera is a more unusual choice.
Ile Flottante is so sweet that it works better with something less sweet, something fruit driven, with a little acidity. Tokaji would be excellent too."