The man behind the first gastropub has moved on - even though the press sometimes appear unwilling to let him. Now David Eyre and his brother Rob are attracting headlines with their restaurant in London's Shoreditch, as Fiona Sims discovered.
David Eyre wants to set things straight. The chef and co-proprietor of much-talked-about newcomer Eyre Brothers, in London's Shoreditch, is just a tad miffed that people have been getting things wrong. No, Eyre Brothers is not an Iberian restaurant, as labelled by a fair few critics. "There's more Italian influence than anything," he says, running his finger down the menu, counting the dishes incorporating the likes of polenta, prosciutto and pancetta.
And if one more journalist kicks off their feature about Eyre Brothers with the Eagle then, well, he'll just explode. Why so touchy? The Eagle, on nearby Farringdon Road, was a landmark, after all - the first so-called gastropub and the unofficial blueprint for a new genre in dining. "It wasn't a landmark to me, it was just this little place I opened," he splutters. "And it was a long time ago. I've so moved on from there - that's not where I am now at all."
Right then, so where exactly is he now? (we'll come back to the Eagle later). "I'm doing authentic southern European," he declares. "Honest cooking - not ‘a take' on this or that, as some critics have said. I would never invent a pasta dish, for example - I only do dishes that are true to their origins. Good home cooking. I'm not into doing restaurant food - there's no towers or prettiness here. I can't be doing with that."
Behind him, in the open kitchen, is a shelf-full of cookery books, but not one chef's cookbook to be seen. There's Elizabeth David and Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden and Edite Vieira, to name four. "I use these every day - these have been my real education," Eyre says.
Eyre's introduction to cooking was through his mother. He lived with his brother Rob (the other half of the business) on his parents' sugar cane plantation on the Zambezi River. Ma Eyre loved entertaining (there wasn't much else to do) but supplies were limited, to say the least, so she learned to improvise, making things from scratch. "I remember her slamming shut a Good Housekeeping cookbook in frustration because she couldn't get hold of any vanilla essence - so she just starting growing the orchids in order to harvest the pods herself."
Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, so the Eyres had access to olive oil and other Portuguese ingredients, which instilled in them a love for the colonising country. They travel to Portugal frequently now, preferring grittier Oporto over glitzy Lisbon. Minho and Tras-os-Montes are their favourite regions - areas from which specialities on the Shoreditch menu frequently derive, such as the feijoada branca, a pork and bean stew).
David left Africa for a university education in England, studying mechanical engineering - which he hated. So his first job after college was as a waiter at Smiths in Covent Garden (now Belgo) working alongside comedian and now big-bucks talk-show presenter Graham Norton. Then he ended up managing the now-defunct Chelsea Wharf restaurant, before heading off to the West Indies "ligging it" as an itinerant barman. "I've played all the parts in this business," he says, with a slight East African burr.
Brother Rob - the Eyre Brothers' front man - started his professional life in the industry too, managing Brown's in Oxford before carving out a career in landscape gardening until his back finally gave in.
David can't (or won't) remember the name of the "little French restaurant" that gave him his first head chef position. He was working out front at the time, the head chef walked out and he offered to take over the kitchen. "At its worst, it was truly dreadful," he recalls. But then came the idea for the Eagle. "Until then my only experience of professional cooking was classic French. When I opened the Eagle I thought, why can't I do mash? Why not cook another part of the chicken than breast? Why can't I do casseroles?"
He stopped going to the likes of Inigo Jones and started eating at Kensington Place. "I used to walk past Alastair Little's restaurant in Soho every day and take notes from the menu," he says. He opened the Eagle on Farringdon Road in 1990 with business partner Michael Belben as a "reaction to eighties excesses". He concedes: "The fact that you could now go to a pub to eat good food was, I suppose, a pretty radical notion."
It was a huge hit, although it was not, as some critics still like to insist, the nearby Guardian‘s unofficial canteen. "We had four or five regulars from the newspaper, tops. Greenpeace, on the other hand, were excellent customers," corrects Eyre.
After seven years at the Eagle it was time for a change. "I remember it was the third handbag thief we'd had that week and I was waiting for the police to turn up when I should have been worrying about the cooking, and I thought this wasn't what I set out do. Then we had this idea that we could do the same thing for people sitting at their desks," he explains.
Rob abandoned his gardening business and David sold his share in the Eagle to Belben and they opened Eyre Brothers (mark I) just around the corner - an upmarket takeaway. "Far from being a simple idea, it turned out to be much more complex. The perceived value of takeaway food is much lower than restaurant or pub food. The packaging cost us too. We made a good living but there was nothing left over - we made a lot of friends though," David laughs. "And it was there that we met our backers for this place."
The backers - local property developers who would rather not be named - owned a 1950s building (a former printers) in Leonard Street which they felt was crying out to be developed as a restaurant. They changed the usage, after a slight struggle with local residents alarmed at the rising wave of noisy bars and restaurants in the area, and employed local architect Waugh-Thistleton (the Light Bar) to transform the space under the Eyres' direction into the sleek, modern, £600,000, 4,000sq feet interior it is now.
With 87 seats, including 14 at the 16m bar, the Eyres service residents from Hackney to Islington, and suits from all four corners of the City. Average spend is around £60 a head with wine, which has irked some critics who hark back continually, much to David's annoyance, to the considerably lower prices at the Eagle. "But I've cranked up the cooking substantially," stresses Eyre. "Where I once used one olive oil, I now use three - I even use olive oil in the deep fat fryer. If I want to buy a decent chicken it costs me £8 and I want to give half to the customer, so we're talking £16 for a chicken dish. I use the best Pata Negra, from Joselito, and charge only £13 for it - well, I'm not making much on that."
His menu - there's only one - is tweaked every day or two, with a total change every month. "I offer a large menu - 11 or 12 starters and mains," he says. "I know I'm not cheap, but this is not an everyday kind of place. And anyway, I'm cheaper than dozens of other places."
Rather amusingly, David doesn't regard himself as the head chef. "I leave that to Peter Quarrie. I'm not a great manager and I'm hopeless with bits of paper and people problems." He credits his brigade of six for giving him some of his knowledge. "I always have a Spanish, Portuguese or Italian chef working with me - even when I was at the Eagle. I've learned a lot from them".
There isn't a best-selling dish on the menu, because he changes the menu too frequently, and when he sees customers ordering more of one dish he'll pull it the next day.
He has favourite ingredients, though - like the milk-fed lamb from Castilla and the fresh Iberico pork. The goose prosciutto is up there too, served with mint and grilled radicchio di Treviso, £7.50). Then there's the polenta from Machiavelli, the goose fat (he offers a side dish of goose fat roast potatoes for £3) from Wild Harvest, and the baby artichokes and Swiss chard from George Allen. "I use loads of individual suppliers."
The same goes for the 75-bin wine list, compiled by Rob with help from consultant John Humphries. There's a good line-up from Iberia, with a decent sherry selection, but it pretty much hops the globe, scooping up little-known gems from Washington State such as Andrew Will Pepperbridge Merlot (£70) and Murray Darling (Tall Poppy Viognier, £22). There's even a Basque wine, a Hondarrabi from Txomin Etxantiz (£18.50).
Will it survive? One hopes so. Business has been pretty good, despite a quiet January and opening two weeks before 11 September. "I'm off home now, see you later," says Rob to David. There's brotherly love for you - they live with each other too.
Eyre Brothers, 70 Leonard Street, London EC2. Tel: 020 7613 5346
A selection from the menu at Eyre Brothers
Grilled chorizo, lentil and parsley salad with sherry vinegar, £7
Fried Galician pimientos de padròn with fried egg, £5.50
Grilled squid, sautéd spinach Catalan style, salsa Romesco, £9
Polenta with mascarpone and Gorgonzola, £7
Egg taglierini with black cabbage, garlic, chilli and cream, £7.50
Gilt-head sea bream fillets, roasted with spring onions and tomatoes, ali-oli, £17
Grilled whole red mullet, anchovy, lemon and rosemary sauce, fennel and olive salad, £18
Confit of goose, Savoy cabbage, pancetta and chestnuts, celeriac mash, £17
Grilled veal chop, potatoes and red onions baked with thyme and balsamic vinegar, £17
Lemon and ricotta rice pudding with poached apricots, £4.50
Pine nut and treacle tart with orange marmalade ice cream, £4.50