March 24 (Bloomberg) -- I think that’s Joan Collins sitting at the next table. She’s not attracting much attention.
Celebrities are thick on the ground at Chiltern Firehouse, the new London restaurant of Andre Balazs, the hotelier behind the Mercer in New York and Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
Lily Allen, Guy Ritchie, Harvey Weinstein, Graham Norton, Bradley Cooper, Kate Moss, Jamie Hince and Cara Delevingne have been photographed outside. Bob Geldof, Russell Brand, Rachel Weisz, Laura Bailey, Bono, Liam Gallagher and Stella McCartney are said to have eaten there.
(The hotel’s publicists won’t discuss who has been in, which may be one reason why celebrities like the place.)
At the center of this maelstrom is a quietly spoken Portuguese chef, who is shy and self-effacing. Nuno Mendes is a veteran of El Bulli, known for creative and challenging food.
When he opened Bacchus in a pub in Hoxton in 2006, one dish was cinnamon-rubbed pork tenderloin, pureed leeks, mangosteen, wasabi and rose froth, wild rocket and salty caramel. Mendes went on to win a Michelin star at Viajante, in Bethnal Green, where his cooking was no less inventive.
(I once turned up for lunch with Shane Osborn, forgetting that the Australian chef had a fish allergy. Mendes, 40, created a multicourse tasting menu from scratch.)
So what’s he doing serving Caesar salad and steaks to the stars? Why the change of direction?
“I wouldn’t say a change of direction,” Mendes says in an interview beside his kitchen as the dinner service begins. “We all are multifaceted individuals. I have a huge passion for the dining format of Viajante -- like the tasting menu, those kinds of experiences -- But I also want to do things parallel to that.”
The menu is inspired by 14 years he spent working in the U.S., in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Santa Fe.
“These are things that I like to eat if I come out with friends. It’s not so much for gastronomic discovery but more just to have fun. This is the kind of place, the kind of setup that I like.”
“Here, it’s busy and we’re exposed to a different kind of clientele. Viajante was a foodie clientele. This is more social. There are some foodies but there’s a lot of people who have come here because it’s a project done by Andre. It’s a nice mix.”
“I never wanted this place to be about the food,” he says. “It’s about the experience as a whole and the social experience of being in this room.”
Mendes may be underselling his cooking. A Caesar salad at 9 pounds ($15) comes with slices of beautifully crisp chicken skin; crab donuts are inspired; char-grilled Iberico pork with roasted garlic & lemon (24 pounds) is so rich it deserves a higher tax rate. But it is brasserie food. Steak tartare with pine nuts & chipotle spice is still a pile of raw meat; the cooked steaks won’t trouble Hawksmoor, Goodman or Cut.
The managers say they want this to become a neighborhood restaurant rather than just a celebrity hangout, and mention the weekend brunch as a rather less glitzy meal than dinner. Chiltern Firehouse doesn’t yet open for lunch.
Call for a dinner reservation and you probably will have little luck, yet the restaurant does accept walk-ins without bookings.
It’s the beauty of the room, the elegance of the staff and the celebrity of the diners that might bring you back more than the food. The bar is pretty lively, too.
Viajante closed after Mendes’s departure, yet it isn’t dead.
“I don’t think I’m a one-trick pony so I’ve always wanted to explore different avenues and different formats and different styles of restaurants,” Mendes says. “The idea has always been to reopen Viajante -- maybe not that name, but that concept.”
Chiltern Firehouse, 1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 7PA. Information: http://www.chilternfirehouse.com/ or +44-20-7073-7676
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)
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