Salt Yard Group founder Simon Mullins and wife Isabel Almeida Da Silva opened Volta do Mar in London's Covent Garden in November, focusing on Portuguese cuisine and the influences of the country's trading routes. They talk to Katherine Price
Has the restaurant concept turned out how you originally visualised it?
SM: We've only really scratched the surface of the idea, but what we've found is that people are really interested in it, and they get it as well, which is great. Once you make the connection that it's food from the Portuguese-speaking world and understand what the name of the restaurant means [Volta do Mar loosely translates as ‘return from the sea'], it makes sense and it gives us such a broad canvas in terms of where we can take the food creatively. We also want to start bringing in guest chefs from different parts of the Portuguese-speaking world.
IADS: It's not just about the food and drink – it's also about bringing the Portuguese-speaking community together.
SM: It's interesting how the different communities that are related to Portugal and its former trade routes have started coming in as customers, from Cape Verde, Mozambique, Goa – these communities have got behind us.
IADS: We want to be the pioneers to show how wonderful all of these communities are.
Is the restaurant operating as you expected? Are people coming in for a pastel de nata and coffee in the morning?
SM: We've got a great pastry chef on board now. We toyed with buying pastéis in and then selling them, but we decided that wasn't really us and we wanted to make our own. Ours are still a bit of a work in progress, but we're almost there. We will introduce our pastries when we're happy.
Building that morning trade takes a bit longer than evening or lunch, because around here there's not much in the way of breakfast stops. That's not to say there isn't a market for it – there certainly is.
IADS: We have people already requesting to have meetings here in the morning – that will be a good way to showcase this product.
Is the menu very collaborative between you and the chefs?
SM: We've got very clear ideas about the standard the dishes should be at, but also what dishes should be on the menu. It's a very collaborative process with the chefs and we want to bring in more dishes from Isabel's background and use her grandmother's recipe book.
IADS: It's important that staff feel part of the business and that they feel comfortable coming to us to talk about their ideas. We want everybody to develop and be part of Volta do Mar. The restaurant itself feels a lot like a home.
SM: It was a group of old Georgian homes. The idea was to bring them back to that homely vibe.
IADS: It's about family and fun.
SM: We get such a broad demographic in our guests. Even those that come in by mistake – thinking that they're going to Côte next door – they sit down anyway! We guide them through the menu, explain what we're all about, take them on a journey and they leave really happy.
How different is the service and atmosphere to Salt Yard?
IADS: I think it's quite different. It's very personal service. It's like coming to someone's house for dinner.
SM: We want passionate foodies throughout the whole team. One of the first questions ask anyone we're interviewing is, "do you like food?" Even if you have no idea what to do as a waiter, we can teach all that, but unless you like food it's a bit pointless. You can then filter out the right and wrong types for the floor. Once you have passionate foodies on board who want to learn about what we're doing, it's infectious – they transmit that enthusiasm to customers.
IADS: It's not about people eating and leaving. We want to make sure we also find out about them, and they find out about us. It's a kind of conversation.
We also want to put on a few dishes specifically for kids. Certain places now don't want kids to come. As a child I used to go out with my parents; it was not a problem and I was looked after like them, so I want to bring the same service to the little ones.
SM: We want them to know they can feel completely comfortable, bring their kids along, that the kids will be entertained and looked after. I remember going to old-school Italian restaurants as a child, where the waiter would squeeze your cheek and look after you nicely.
How easy have you found recruitment?
SM: We've been quite lucky. A lot of the people we've got on the team were quite new to London, and a lot of them didn't have much experience but picked it up really quickly. We do a lot of ongoing training, from the tasting to the technical side, such as how to carry a tray or polish glasses – attention to detail.
IADS: I think we've got people with a lot of heart and personality.
SM: You need to have the right mentality in hospitality. If you've got the right mentality, the rest can be taught.
You can always find good people for front of house – the tricky bit is chefs. Everybody in the industry knows that at a certain level it's a challenge to get the right standard of skills and also the right mentality. A lot of the senior chefs in the industry have had a very different upbringing professionally to younger chefs, who have fast-tracked up the ladder without the same level or amount of experience, time and training, but have expectations, perhaps above their skill station. And that goes with pay as well. That makes things tricky.
There's definitely a focus on training in the kitchen, at all levels.
IADS: One of the best things is the connection the kitchen and front of house have, because we all work together, we understand each other and have a mutual respect for each other's jobs. If one doesn't work, it's a problem.
SM: It might be two departments, but we're all one team.
Are there a lot of opportunities in the kitchen for training due to the kind of cuisine you serve and the ingredients you use
SM: Because the concept is such a broad canvas, there's so much that can be learned and that's attractive to a budding chef.
IADS: We've got so many different cultures on the team. It's beautiful.
SM: Although it's quite interesting how the head and the sous chefs were born in the same hospital. There's a kind of family vibe and I think that's more of a European thing.
Chef Nuno Mendes posted on Instagram ahead of the restaurant's opening claiming he had developed the concept. What happened?
SM: We were in talks with Nuno. We took the idea to him – just to set the record straight. I found this site because I have a relationship with the landlord. In the post there are some inaccuracies and it was personally quite upsetting. The talks with Nuno didn't work out. I don't need to go into the details, but it became an inequitable discussion, so he decided to move on. We thought, well, that's fine, we can find another chef who gets the idea and wants to take this on as a challenge.
No ill-will to Nuno – we respect and wish him well – but it was just unfortunate, because he's got a very large platform and we don't.
IADS: The way people reacted was disappointing. Hospitality is already struggling and, instead of helping each other, we're pointing fingers… We cannot just stop an idea because it didn't work with Nuno Mendes.
SM: We've been talking about this for years… At the end of the day, we're not the only ones who have had this idea. There are places that have cottoned onto this in the States, there's a place in Lisbon that has got a similar idea to us. This is a phenomenon, it's not trademarked. You can't trademark cuisine.
What are your best-selling dishes?
SM: Our aubergine Goan curry, which is a vegan dish using Goan spices and yogurt made from cashews. Of the three Goan curries that we've got on at the moment, it's the mildest. The Ibérico pork vindalho is also really popular.
IADS: And the Moçambique piri-piri chicken.
SM: We've got quite a few dishes on the menu that are vegan or vegetarian, and that's happened naturally. Our set lunch/pre-theatre menu is really popular. It's a bit more expensive than the neighbours' version, but it's a totally different option.
IADS: Four courses for £24 is pretty good. The portions are not bad at all. We're now telling people to relax, have your starter and main, then why don't you come back after the theatre and have your dessert? And they're loving it.
SM: It's a nice thing to have after the show, and then they're back in the restaurant and they might have a glass of port…
Is that what's going to make you stand out in this difficult market?
SM: We want to punch above our weight in terms of quality; the same goes for the drinks.
We're lucky that Portuguese wine is really good value for the quality, and we do a lot by the carafe.
Some people might have said it was a risky time to open a restaurant?
SM: Look how many openings there are. I mean, central London openings are trickier than maybe east London, where the rents are lower… If the fundamentals are right, you'll be OK, and the fundamentals are great food and wine, amazing service and a good location – and we've got those.
Are you trading in line with expectations a few months in?
SM: The numbers are climbing. The first week of January was a bit quiet.
IADS: January was hard.
SM: Every week is busier than the week before. We're getting a lot of corporate enquiries. We're encouraged by the trade so far.
What are your hopes for the restaurant? Would you open another one?
SM: This is a big project. We've got a lot to show here and there's a lot we want to do with the space, the concept. For the time being it's about really developing this as a single restaurant. We don't have any immediate plans to roll out. We've got plenty of ideas in terms of spin-offs, but the focus has to be on this for the time being. There's a way to go yet. I can see this working internationally, but that obviously comes with its own challenges.
We want to build a community away from the chain restaurants and put the focus on Portuguese food in London. We're quite chummy with Max [Graham] from Bar Douro, Casa do Frango is raising the bar and that's great – bring it on, the more the merrier! In such a tricky environment it's so important that the industry pulls together and supports one another as a community, because we can co-exist competitively and successfully.
About Simon Mullins and Isabel Almeida Da Silva
Isabel Almeida Da Silva has worked front of house for Corbin & King, Drake & Morgan and Flemings Mayfair, and has had a hospitality, food and beverage consultant role at the Bush Theatre in west London.
Mullins founded the Salt Yard Group of restaurants, which was sold to Urban Pubs & Bars in 2018. He has said that he has decided to step back from Volta do Mar to spend more time with his family.
Volta do Mar
13-15 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7PS 0203 034 0028 www.voltadomar.co.uk
- Opened November 2019
- Covers 120
- Head chef George Tannock
- Menus Set lunch and pre-theatre, three courses, £19, four courses, £24
- Typical dishes Caldo verde soup with Ibérico choriço (£5); chargrilled octopus and black eyed pea salad (£10); Portuguese Tronchuda cabbage feijoada (£15); tiger prawn and fish moqueca (£19); pudim casa de Santo Amaro with orange and Madeira (£7); white chocolate serradura and raspberry (£7)
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