In case you hadn’t clicked already, Mark Jarvis’ upcoming restaurant Stem is so named because it represents the growth of his soon to be three-strong restaurant group. As restaurant names go, it’s pretty solid – better than some of the other suggestions, Jarvis recalls, not least ‘Allotment.’
“That’s a bit EastEnders,” he remarks as we chat at his other pithily named restaurant Anglo.
“With a name like that you’d expect Arthur Fowler to pop in.”
It’s a comment that betrays Jarvis’ age, given that the EastEnders character was killed off from the soap in 1996. The 35-year-old chef and restaurateur tells me that none of his restaurant names came particularly easy. He had to fight for the name Neo Bistro, the second restaurant he opened, just off London’s Oxford Street. “It was pretty tricky to sell to the board, they said ‘it doesn’t mean anything’,” he says. “We struggled with the name but I think it works.”
Yet Jarvis could probably call his restaurant ‘Mud’ and get away with it. The award-winning chef has won numerous plaudits for his ‘informal but precise’ cooking – including Anglo, his debut solo restaurant in Farringdon, that was named Best Newcomer in 2016 by Observer Food Monthly – and he lets his food do the talking. The design of the 32-cover restaurant is not so much pared back, but actively bleak (dark wood tables and chairs and a brown scuffed up concrete floor and brown walls to match) but boy does the food shine through. I could eat Anglo’s burnt leek tart – one of the nicest things I have put in my mouth – over and over again (or at least I could have until it was finally replaced with a crab version), sitting in an old World War II air raid shelter if necessary.
Dialling it up a notch
With Stem, however, aesthetics aren’t likely to be a problem. Located in a smart, multi-storey town house building on Mayfair’s Princess Street, just off Regent’s Street, Jarvis’ third project is by far his most grown-up to date. Due to open next month, although this could slip to April, the restaurant will have a ground-floor dining room for 35 people as well as a basement ‘theatre kitchen’ restaurant that will serve a separate menu and “really show people what we can do”, according to Jarvis.
It will be the group’s first seven-day operation and its Mayfair postcode means the interior will be a step up from the bistro-style feel of Jarvis’ other two restaurants, with him revealing that he has forked out £12,000 on lighting alone. The restaurant will also have a living wall and dark granite table tops. When in Mayfair...
“We’re not spending millions, I want it to have a similar feel to the other two – humble and honest,” he says. “But in Mayfair people expect different things. The light fittings are a lot of money to us, but they are nice and in Mayfair you need that. People are paying a higher price to be in a dining room so you’ve got to give them something nice to look at.”
Former Anglo chef Sam Ashton-Booth will be heading up the kitchen, although Jarvis says he will cook there himself from time to time, and prices will reflect the location, with Stem more expensive than Neo Bistro and Anglo. But it will still be accessible, he stresses, in terms of both the offer and the pricing.
“The rent is three times as much [as the other restaurants] so it will be a little bit more, and the room has cost more and so we will bump the prices up a bit, but we’re not going to go too far,” says Jarvis, who adds that the menu served in the downstairs kitchen restaurant will be more expensive than in the main dining room. “Before we even took the site we did a plan of how many seats it would be, worked out what the maximum and minimum spend might be and what every seat was worth. We’re not looking to turn tables. Downstairs has to be more expensive but you’re going to get a real experience.”
Launch dishes will include smoked eel, celeriac and white chocolate; pigeon, coconut and salted peanut; and pineapple, olive oil, lime and salt and the menu will be flexible – “we’re not going to be offering 10 courses or nothing, otherwise we won’t be there very long”. The downstairs kitchen, meanwhile, will have a different menu “to show people what Sam’s about,” says Jarvis. “We talked about doing the same menu but realised there would be no point in someone coming downstairs – they may as well just sit in the main restaurant. Either that or you create a situation where some lucky people get to sit downstairs while others don’t, which is not what we want.”
Stem came about in response to customers at Anglo asking Jarvis when he was coming to Mayfair. His initial response was ‘never’ but having spoken with property agents and seeing the type of Ferrari and Bentley-driving clientele (the free evening parking helps) that Anglo was beginning to attract, he changed his view.
“It’s amazing who you can bring to an area,” he says. “We’ve got customers at Anglo who also eat at Sushi Tetsu each week and who were asking us to come to Mayfair. That’s not going to keep Stem going forever but, as it develops, hopefully it will entice other people.”
Given the stripped back and humble approach at Anglo, Mayfair isn’t the obvious location, but then nowhere Jarvis has chosen to open follows conventional thinking. People told him
he was crazy to open just off Leather Lane and that there would be an OK day trade but no footfall at night (the opposite has turned out to be true) and even he initially hadn’t intended for Farringdon to be the site of his debut place. Jarvis was going to sign on a lease in Marylebone but, following a trip to Barcelona where he recalls “going on a real adventure to find my friend’s restaurant”, he heeded the advice of a property agent to look at a small place on an unremarkable street. “It was a Saturday morning, everything was dead and I saw this cool little building in what looked like a run-down area. I loved it. It added to the experience.”
While Jarvis is not so naive to think that everywhere would be suitable for a restaurant of Anglo’s style – predicting that it would have lasted six months if he’d tried to open it in his home county of Surrey – he isn’t afraid to opt for less obvious places. This is apparent with Neo Bistro, which he opened just off tourist hot spot Oxford Street, an unlikely place to try to replicate Paris’ edgy bistronomy movement.
As it turns out, one of Jarvis’ backers owned the freehold on the former site and offered it to him at a rate he couldn’t pass up, otherwise he would have been unlikely to have considered it. After a slower start than Anglo, trade has picked up and there’s no regrets.
“It’s a daunting place to open a restaurant. If it was a good area there would be hundreds of decent restaurants there already. People from branding and marketing are always talking about footfall, but then you’re competing with Angus steakhouse. We are starting to get the shoppers in a bit more.”
Middle child syndrome
As he talks about Neo, you get the feeling that Jarvis has a strange relationship with it. On the one hand, he can’t quite understand why the restaurant hasn’t generated more waves. When it launched last year there was a feeling that it might fan the flames of London’s own bistronomy movement that had already been lit by the likes of Frenchie and Noble Rot, but this has yet to materialise.
On the other hand, however, he almost seems to resent the love that some people have for it, including the large amounts of Americans who visit, over Anglo. “What makes them want to go there?” he asks, although what he means is ‘what makes them want to go there instead of Anglo?’ “Lots of my friends want me to book them into Neo, and they haven’t even been to Anglo yet. What’s happened there?”, he says in the tone of a parent whose child has been overlooked for the lead role in the school play. “People think it’s more relaxed, and I suppose it is a bit, but we’re not that strict at Anglo either.”
So Anglo is Jarvis’ baby, and he is extremely proud of his first born. Having previously worked under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir and then at The Bingham and Blueprint Café, Anglo marked the first time he was able to create his own place (“I’d had enough of working for other people,” he says) and so it is not difficult to understand why. Other Le Manoir alumni include Ollie Dabbous and Robin Gill, both of whom have had success in the capital with a similar style of food and restaurant. Does he see the similarities between what he and they are doing?
“When at Le Manoir, a style of cooking gets drummed into you, but we’ve all worked under different people since. I might use a similar sauce or base for a recipe, but I try not to do too many things that I learnt at Le Manoir. Once you start creating a menu with a team around you, they bring in different ideas. It’s not just the one guy creating dishes, it’s a team.”
Jarvis also distances himself from the ‘modern British food’ moniker typically used to describe the style that chefs such as him are employing, preferring instead the term ‘modern fusion’. Evidence of this can be found when asked which of his dishes he is most proud of. “Beef and bonito and bone marrow custard. It’s not new but it took me ages to perfect because the custard kept splitting. If everything’s right on it it’s very, very good. Or at least I think so.”
‘Proper’ pub for project four
Despite Stem having not yet opened, Jarvis is already looking beyond it to project number four. While still very much in the early stages of planning, he says he is looking to open a pub in Marylebone. The idea came from a chat over a beer with a few chefs at Anglo about doing something a bit more relaxed and fun. “When you’re in a kitchen [like Anglo] you’re always trying to create something new or different and it’s so stressful. But what if you wanted to do an amazing fish and chips like what you cook for the staff food? It’s actually really good.”
It will be a “proper pub” where the football will be on show,” he insists.
His attention might also turn again to Neo Bistro, with Jarvis not ruling out the possibility of moving it to a bigger site, although he says that, at the minute, it’s doing fine where it is. There was even a consideration of doing more of them, but with a different cuisine, such as Spanish or Italian, although he says any new Neos might have to be in more neighbourhood locations. “You’re quite restricted. Once you go into these prime locations, [the landlords] want you to have just the one site, so you have to think of a different concept or go further afield.”
Would he be interested in doing a bigger restaurant if Stem proves to be a hit? It’s a question he says he’s been asked a few times, and his answer is a non-committal ‘maybe’. “If I do it would have to be more of a concept restaurant and have a theme. Like Temper. You can see that has been designed to do big numbers but it’s designed nicely. Anglo doing 100 covers? I’d be here every day! We’d have to design a restaurant so that I’d feel comfortable in it.”
Given the gathering storm clouds over the sector, is he worried about what this year might bring? “Spending is changing. A lot of chains are closing, not just because of Brexit but because they are chains and if you don’t enjoy one restaurant [in a group], you won’t enjoy
any of them.”
For Jarvis it’s about being smart. While a number of high-profile chefs have recently turned their backs on the tasting menu, Jarvis sees it as an important part of running a restaurant in the capital. With it he says he can bring the costs down as he knows what people will order and it also means less wastage. Likewise, having smaller restaurants means his venues are very approachable. “This year, you really need to make the customer feel special and be more approachable as a business. You can do that more easily in a smaller site.”
And yes, he admits to being a “bit apprehensive about Mayfair” but not enough to make him feel it is a dangerous move.
“As long as you keep it humble and give people a reason to want to come then they will. It’s not just tourist money, there’s a lot of people who work there too. To fill 36 covers is not the greatest of challenges.
“Opening a restaurant in Mayfair is a major achievement for someone from my background. I’m showing it’s possible for anyone to get where they want to go if they try hard enough.”