Paris’ 11th arrondissement – regarded by some as the French Brooklyn – and the swanky environs of London’s Mayfair don’t share too many similarities (apart, maybe, from rising property prices) but there will be another this month when Le Chabanais opens its doors.
The restaurant, a sibling of sorts to chef Inaki Aizpitarte’s modish Paris bistrot Le Chateaubriand, will bring the self-taught Basque chef’s ambitious cooking to the UK. Against a backdrop of grand French brasseries opening up across London, it is likely to cause a stir when it opens its doors and offers something with a bit more Gallic flair, not least because Aizpitarte’s cooking has already garnered worldwide praise and earned his Paris dining room a regular spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Despite the similar sounding name – Le Chabanais takes its moniker from an infamous Belle Epoque brothel (although the PR info describes it more prosaically as an ‘absinthe den’) – the Mayfair restaurant isn’t going to be a replica of the Paris bistrot. The more exclusive postcode notwithstanding, Le Chabanais is actually the brainchild of Bollywood film producer turned restaurateur Varun Talreja who, together with Aizpitarte and his Le Chateaubriand partners Franck Audoux and Laurent Cabut, is instead bringing aspects of the French bistronomy movement to London.
Although Aizpitarte is involved, the kitchen is being headed up by former Le Chateaubriand head chef Paul Boudier, while Kevin Lansdown, previously general manager of nearby Scott’s, will oversee the restaurant’s operation and add a touch of Mayfair experience to the mix.
“I decided to move out of Bollywood and do something different,” says Talreja, on his decision to leave the film industry behind. “I was reaching a point where I had achieved what I wanted and liked the idea of owning my own restaurant. Everything just fell into place.”
Talreja moved to London in 2011 to pursue his restaurant career, and was initially approached by Arjun Waney to help him launch Latin American restaurant Coya. He turned down the offer in favour of launching a restaurant of his own, securing a site on Mayfair’s Mount Street, a stone’s throw from The Connaught, for his debut venture. What then followed was a trip to some of the world’s key gastronomic cities in search of a chef with whom to collaborate.
The link-up with Aizpitarte came about after a serendipitous visit to Paris in August.
“Everywhere was shut except Le Chateaubriand,” he recalls. “I ate there and knew immediately that Inaki was the chef I was looking for. He had been approached by the whole world to open up a second restaurant but he had a similar vision to what we wanted to do. He was keen for his food to be introduced to London.”
While Aizpitarte wasn’t looking to leave his Paris kitchen, Talreja’s timing was also bang on the money. Boudier, who had worked at Le Chateaubriand for the past five years, was about to embark on a one-year break from the kitchen and the opportunity to take on the London restaurant was one not to be missed. “It felt like the right time for me,” says Boudier. “I love London and the chance to cook here wasn’t one I could pass up.”
Same, same but different
With Talreja and Boudier, Le Chabanais is going to be an altogether different prospect to Le Chateaubriand – indeed, its posher location and fit out mean that, in many ways, it will be almost unrecognisable from the Paris original. Where the 11th arrondissement bistrot is characterised by its stark, almost utilitarian style, with whitewashed walls, mosaic tiled floors and dark wood table and chairs (the menu is displayed on a large and prominent blackboard), its London sibling will be “a bit more Mayfair” in style, says Talreja, with brass fittings and a marble bar as key features. Set across two floors, it will comprise a 90-cover, ground-floor Clément Blanchet-designed dining room and adjoining 10-cover private dining room, plus a 40-seat basement bar serving a short menu of French inspired classic cocktails.
“The service will be a little more formal than in Paris but I still want it to feel as casual as possible,” he adds. “It was never my idea to do something quite as casual as Le Chateaubriand, but I want to break away from that stiff Mayfair feel and not be as stuffy as places such as Scott’s or La Petite Maison. It will hopefully attract the same crowd, but wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of suits. It will have a more trendy vibe.”
Le Chateaubriand’s limited reservation policy – it has two sittings a night, the second kicking off at 9.30pm with no bookings, often leading to lines of people queuing around the block – isn’t being replicated over here so as to offer more flexibility to Londoners. “It is tougher in Mayfair. The people there are used to more pampering than usual, and we have to be more flexible.”
That said, Talreja is keen to ensure that fans of Le Chateaubriand will see similarities between the two, with the interior taking cues from the original restaurant and its neighbouring wine bar Le Dauphin. With the food in particular, there will be greater synergies, with Le Chabanais serving daily changing, market-led dishes, as in Paris. It will eschew the bistrot’s take-it-or-leave-it approach for a more accessible menu, with the introduction of an à la carte menu, but dishes will echo Le Chateaubriand’s progressive style.
“To start with the menu will be quite short, but once we get going it will grow and evolve,” says Boudier. “We might put on a few dishes that we serve at Le Chateaubriand in the beginning, but are conscious the UK is a different country with different products and that the menu needs to reflect that.” The restaurant will use as many UK ingredients as possible, particularly meat and fish, although Boudier says some fruit
and vegetables will come from Rungis.
Dishes will move between updated bistrot classics to food that is a little more polished, with Asian and South American cooking techniques on show. Launch dishes are likely to include roe, spinach and sea lettuce; red mullet, grapefruit and brown butter; crab tandoori and faisselle cheese; and cod, radicchio and saffron butter; as well as its take on the Mont Blanc dessert. A tight selection of natural wines will
complement the food.
As for whether Londoners will ultimately eat Aizpitarte’s food or Boudier’s, Talreja says it will be both. “Inaki will be here for the launch and be involved in the menus as they change with the seasons. He will come over three or four times a year. But it will be Paul’s cooking and his chance to show London what he and his team can do.
“There’s a lot of openings in London at the moment. At least five major places open up here each year, and we want to be one of them."