"It's a new restaurant, we kept the name because of its heritage": Marlon Abela on the reopened The Square

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

 "It's a new restaurant, we kept the name because of its heritage": Marlon Abela on the reopened The Square
The restaurateur behind Mayfair two-stars Umu and The Greenhouse has just relaunched The Square. His solution to intense competition from more casual operators? Make his restaurants even more top-end

The Square looks very contemporary...
The menu is a modern take on haute cuisine and we wanted the design of the restaurant to reflect that. We were going for modern urban chic​ and I believe we have achieved that. The Greenhouse is hidden away, a little oasis, if you like. The Square is located in the epicentre of Mayfair, it needed to have energy and an international and contemporary feel. But it’s still comfortable. When you sit in it you feel good. I speak from experience when I say that you can conceive and design a restaurant that looks great on paper but does not end up being a particularly nice place to be.

What has the feedback from the regulars been like?
Broadly very good. It’s a real transformation in terms of what The Square was before. To be honest it is a new restaurant, we kept the name because of its heritage. It’s one of the biggest names in the London restaurant scene and is well-known internationally too. There are big benefits to holding onto the name, but it’s a brand new place.

There was a last minute change of chef ahead of the refurbishment in August...
Yes. Yu Sugimoto had to return to Japan​ for family reasons and we wish him well. Clément Leroy has a similar CV. They have both worked at three Michelin star restaurants under some of the greatest chefs in the world. Clément has done a great job of adapting his style to what is required at The Square. We offer a four-course à la carte menu, which requires a lighter approach. He’s also had to get through 30 menu tastings with me. I’m very hands on with my chefs when it comes to the food.

Is it part of Leroy’s brief to win back The Square’s two Michelin stars?
We would, of course, like to get that second star back. It’s our objective to push for the best. We lost two stars immediately because of the change of ownership and Michelin ended up giving us one back in the 2018 guide based on Yu Sugimoto’s cooking.

It looks like a strong Japanese influence remains...
There are certainly some Japanese influences. But I think Japan’s approach to cuisine has influenced good chefs across the world. The cooking is simple; we try not to mask the product. We’re using virtually no butter or cream and from time to time you will see splashes of Japanese ingredients, because they’re very good. We also do a lot of work on umami, which now has a place in European cuisine.

What about the wine?
It’s a big list, some 1,800 bins. We inherited just under a third of that from the restaurant. We’ve tried to create a point of difference to The Greenhouse with an eclectic list. The Greenhouse has a lot of verticals (lines of the same wine). The list at The Square is far broader. There are a lot of interesting, lesser-known producers. It’s focused on France and Italy but there are a lot of great New World listings too.
 
How has Mayfair changed since you took over The Greenhouse back in the early 2000s?
It has changed enormously. Obviously there are many more restaurants. But more importantly there has been a move to more casual restaurants. It’s made us rethink our strategy. The plan is to differentiate by positioning ourselves at the very highest level in terms of food, wine, service and the look and feel of our restaurants. We do fine dining. I want MARC (Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation) to be at the forefront of what fine dining represents over the next decade. With the re-opening of The Square I believe we have shown our capability. We are playing at the very highest level.

The-Square-Int

"Modern urban chic": The new The Square

Many people believe the market for fine dining is contracting. What’s your view?  
Just look at this year’s key openings. Claude Bosi at Bibendum, Clare Smyth’s Core, and now our own The Square. Top-end restaurants are evolving, but the idea that fine dining is on the way out is ridiculous. Yet the media often talks about its decline when really it should be celebrating its success. We should be proud of our top-end restaurant scene, there’s a huge amount of variety and it’s also much better value than many other cities.

How is your hunt for a new location for Greens Restaurant & Oyster Bar?
We’re looking around Mayfair, but we think its original location of St James’s could also work (founded in 1982, the restaurant was demolished by the Crown Estate to make way for the St James’s Market development). Property is very hard at the moment. We love the heritage of Greens and want to work with (founder) Simon Parker Bowles to bring it into the MARC family. We’re also looking to bring one of our US Italian restaurants to London and we’re making progress on a New York site for Umu, although we’re not ready to talk about that just yet.

This article first appeared in the December issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here

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