When Stevie Parle was first approached about opening a restaurant in London’s Docklands his initial response was an emphatic “no, no, no”.
“I didn’t even know where Greenwich was,” he recalls, “but I knew it was near the 02, which sounded awful.”
With the proposed site in the shadow of the giant white pimple that marked the beginning of the new millennium, and with views across two large car parks, a huge blinking video screen that idly flicks between flashing images throughout the day, and the solemn, inexhaustible crawl of gondolas from the Emirates Air Line above, it’s not difficult to understand Parle’s immediate reaction.
Add to that the cluster of branded restaurants within the big tent itself, groups that seem to have little in common with the chef and restaurateur’s projects to date – the stylised Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove and the more rough round the edges Rotorino in Dalston – and his eventual embracement of the area seems even more strange.
Yet here he is with Craft London, a first-floor restaurant, rooftop cocktail bar and terrace, and ground-floor coffee shop, mere yards from North Greenwich tube station and the impending crowd of S Club 7 fans that will descend onto Peninsula Square and the O2 later this month. So what changed his mind?
“I saw the space and the building, and started thinking about what could be done,” he says. “I could have a huge kitchen, which is something I’ve never really had. The one at Dock Kitchen is pretty big now but it wasn’t always like that, and at Rotorino, we weren’t sure it was going to do well so we didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on it. The scale and potential of this project was what really appealed to me.”
There was another factor in Parle’s decision to move to Greenwich, and that was the involvement of friend and acclaimed designer Tom Dixon, with whom Parle had already collaborated at Dock Kitchen.
Dixon approached Parle for the project and, after successfully persuading him to come on board, the pair has created a space the likes of which haven’t been seen in Docklands so far, thanks to its curves, beautiful lighting and Dixon’s instinctive understanding of how to harmonise colour and texture. If Greenwich seems an odd fit for Parle then his beautiful new restaurant is equally incongruous amid the humdrum, skyscraper backdrop.
A life off the beaten path
Yet in many ways, Greenwich isn’t as far-fetched a location as first appears, not for Parle anyway.
When Dock Kitchen opened in 2009 in a converted Victorian Wharf building that used to be home to a Virgin Records complex, it wasn’t exactly part of a thriving local restaurant scene.
Initially created as a pop-up – although the term didn’t really exist back then, he recalls – Dock Kitchen opened beneath Dixon’s design showroom in what used to be the music company’s canteen. After a year, however, the pair switched places with Parle moving upstairs into the bigger room and Dixon switching to the space below.
The east London location of Rotorino, the Italian restaurant Parle launched with friend and street food magnate Jonathan Downey last year, meanwhile, is more in the direction of a burgeoning food scene but can hardly be described as being in a high footfall area. In that regard, he should feel right at home at his latest venture, which has a similar identity.
In fact, it wasn’t the location but the space itself that required the biggest leap of faith, according to Parle. “I was worried about the newness of it all here,” he says. “It’s a new glass building and, while it’s beautiful, it has no natural texture, no history. I was intimidated by that. I spoke with Tom about how to embrace it and both of us wanted to get oldness and roughness into it to react with the newness and
the glass, which is why we’ve used materials like broken limestone, cork, polished plaster and pewter. It wasn’t something that had integrity and roots, and that was daunting.”
If Dixon’s design has successfully managed to address all these issues, with a bright and colourful space that is contemporary yet distinctive, the food and drink offer at Craft London almost overcompensates for any feeling of a lack of integrity. For a start, everything on the menu is British – give or take – and seasonal, with Parle working closely with numerous farmers and producers across the country.
This means no use of his beloved ingredient miso or indeed any other foreign ingredient, with Parle instead using home-grown produce to replicate such flavours. The slide rule has even been run over the spices he is using, with only those that have been available in Britain for hundreds of years getting the go-ahead, and the cocktail list, with staff having to look for creative ways of replacing international ingredients and those out of season.
Only with the European-centric wine list has Parle strayed from his British-only intentions. “Putting that discipline on the food and drink and saying, ‘you know what, we’re only going to buy from people we know’ means we’ve had to come up with new processes,” says Parle. “At Dock Kitchen I use sumac a lot, but for here I have had to create a similar ingredient with rhubarb powder – it’s sour and pink like sumac. I told my bartender Adam [Wyatt-Jones, former GM of Milk & Honey] to not use fruit out of season so he’s now using raspberry leaf tea instead of fresh raspberries and he has also found British-made fruit vinegars for drinks. When you put those constraints on people you can get amazing creativity because you’ve got to problem solve. That’s what’s good fun about this project.”
Craft London also lives up to its name in that Parle is focusing more closely than most on the artisan nature of his products and ingredients. The ground-floor café has its own coffee roaster, with Parle seeking advice from Square Mile Coffee Roasters on which roaster to buy, and the restaurant will make its own butter and vinegars as well as ferment its own vegetables. Honey is collected from beehives positioned across the way from the restaurant in the newly planted Peninsula garden meadow, herbs will be grown in pots surrounding the restaurant, and eel and salmon – as well as butter in the future – is cold-smoked at the same outside location.
Care in the community
Parle has also created a meat curing room, which he hopes will eventually enable him to cure enough meat for Dock Kitchen and Rotorino as well. Christopher Lee, former long-term chef at Chez Panisse in California, is coming over this month to get his cured meats to the “next level”, which seems sensible given Parle’s past track record, he jokes.
“It’s something I’ve always tried to do at Dock Kitchen. I remember first trying it with April [Bloomfield] at the River Café when she was one of the head chefs (Parle worked at the Hammersmith restaurant from the age of 17). We cut into this piece of meat that we’d cured and hung in the wine cellar and loads of maggots came out. I’ve got better at it since then though.”
The project even supports specialist and lesser-known British suppliers, such as London mead producer Gosnells and The Wiltshire Liqueur Company, and Parle intends to make his space available for suppliers to bring people to talk about their products. “I want it to have a community feel,” he says.
If all this doesn’t sound very ‘Greenwich’ then it’s not supposed to. Amid the casual-dining and mid-market chains of the O2 and some of the more upscale groups at nearby Canary Wharf – not least Goodman, Iberica and Roka – Craft London is designed to be a step above. “We are trying to create a world-class destination restaurant,” asserts Parle. “Given the amount of work and time we’ve put into it, that is the ambition.”
The menu and its prices certainly reinforce this. The carte is large, with about eight snacks, such as wild pigeon pastry with pickled walnuts (£7.50) and cured pork neck, Galloway beef leg and pepper sausage (£12), while starters such as chopped highland beef with dripping, pear, crisps and salmon roe; and English asparagus, clamped carrot, mead and anchovy sauce come in at about the £12 mark. Mains, meanwhile, of which there are about 10, range from around £18 for ash-roasted squash with wild herbs and goats’ curd up to £75 for the sharing dish of clay-baked duck, honey, broad bean and barley ‘miso’, brine-pickled carrots and cabbage.
The menu also features some punchier items, including a snack of Exmoor sturgeon caviar with artichoke crisps and cultured cream for £30 and a starter of langoustines and British lardo for £20, although the restaurant also offers a six-course menu for £65, featuring dishes such as a scallop, mussel and clam porridge with parsley sauce; Galloway beef sirloin, marrowbone bread sauce and lovage liquor; and custard tart. The café downstairs, meanwhile, serves salads and wood-fired pizzas.
And, while the restaurant food is distinctly British, its provenance is not being marketed too heavily, with very little ingredient information appearing on the menu. “We’re not going to shove it down people’s throats – there’s no places named on the menu,” says Parle. “I’m bored of overly friendly menus. Staff will have met most of the farmers and be able to talk to customers who are interested in where their food comes from, but I’m not going to write that a piece of meat came from John in Yorkshire and is aged for 100 days. It’s too much.”
At the stove full time is Craig Johnson, who previously worked with Will Smith and Anthony Demetre for 10 years including being head chef at Les Deux Salons, with Parle still undecided about how he will split his time between his three places.
“When I opened Rotorino, I didn’t miss a service for six weeks, so I’m going to be here a lot, although probably not for as long as that this time round. I’ve got other stuff and two young kids so having people involved is key.
“I’m trying to work out what’s most effective for my time – is it doing two shifts a week on the pass at each restaurant or am I better out of service doing development? I go in and shake things up and cause trouble but the service is smoother and better when I’m on the other side of the pass.”
Taking it slowly
With a no doubt expensive-restaurant fit out and a menu that screams of ambition, Parle is going into his new project full tilt.
But if it might be risky to be opening a destination restaurant in a very non-destination area – a crowded music venue and high-end dining room seem awkward bedfellows – then the 30 year-old is unfazed.
“My expectations are that it will be a little bit slow to grow. You’ve got to drag people here, but I’m not worried about that. The restaurant is so beautiful, particularly at night, and the food is so great. It’s a nice outing. You can come on the boat, eat at the restaurant or go to the bar and have a whole night out.”
He is also a convert to the location, pointing not only to the creation of the meadow garden but to the future plans for the area that include housing and its proximity to central London.
“The first few times I came here I was always half an hour early because in my head it took a long time to get here. Once people realise it is easy to get to, and it’s a cool place, and that we deliver on the food to make it special enough, it will be fine.
“We’re two tube stops from Bermondsey and one stop from Canary Wharf. There’s still not a lot in Canary Wharf, so I’m hoping people will come one stop over on the tube.”
If anything, his main fear is the reviews. “I feel like it’s more important here. At Rotorino I didn’t care; it’s in Dalston and it’s a restaurant for my friends, so if The Times didn’t like it then who gives a shit? Here, I’m worried about reviews.”
Whether the critics make the journey to Docklands or not, Parle is smitten with his new environment, S Club 7 fans and all. “I don’t want a basement kitchen in Soho with no space to grow or do anything interesting. Here I can do many things. We’ve built it and people will come.”