When Anthony Demetre first began planning his kitchen at Arbutus, little did he imagine that six months later he would be the proud owner of a bespoke island suite. Diane Lane reports on the transformation at the Soho eaterie
In the Arbutus building's previous incarnation as Italian restaurant Tartufo, the basement kitchen featured a modular cooking line along one wall and, given his space and budgetary constraints, that's exactly what Anthony Demetre was planning to install. But that was before he met Steve Hobbs, director of Signature FSE, managing agent for French bespoke suite manufacturer Athanor.
Together they designed an island suite measuring a compact 2,800mm long by 1,400mm wide to sit at the heart of the kitchen. Demetre originally wanted a mix of solid tops and open gas burners but Hobbs convinced him that a Plaque Athanor (plancha) was the way to go and Demetre is so glad he did. "I'd never used a plancha before but it's definitely the way forward," says Demetre who, on seeing them in action on Athanor suites at W'Sens and Les Trois Garçons, was sold on the idea. "I wouldn't have open gas burners again."
Demetre did insist on one burner at the end of the suite but the performance of the other elements means it's not used as much as he anticipated.
The two double planchas provide four independently controlled heat zones capable of temperatures of between 60°C and 420°C and Demetre says they're invaluable. Mornings find them covered in pans acting as extra solid tops, but it's during service that they really come into their own as direct cooking surfaces for meats cooked to order such as rabbit, and for pork belly and breast of Elwy Valley lamb, previously slow-cooked and finished off on the smooth steel surface. Additionally, the heat from the planchas radiates into the surrounding 9mm top, providing a surface at 40-50°C for plating up.
Two cast-iron solid tops with offset bull's eyes, under which lie 12kW burners, provide the bulk of the suite's firepower, with the surrounding surface retaining 70-80°C of heat for holding pans. Besides the two conventional ovens, one either side of the suite, there are built-in Alto Sham drawers used for holding meats at a static heat of 55°C during service.
A Falcon bratt pan gets lots of use for braising veal breast, pork belly and lambs' trotters in addition to bouillabaisse, stocks and sauces. There's no real need for a fryer, so the small amount of frying, such as baby squid and the onion rings coated in a 50:50 mix of flour and cornflour to go with the pig's head, is done in a pan on the stove.
Much of the cooking is done in a six-grid Rational Combimaster combi-oven, which is proving so useful that Demetre is planning to get another. It's also used by the pastry section for desserts.
The pastry area is further furnished with a Matfer mixer, a Pacojet machine and a Caravell ice-cream freezer used to house the Pacojet beakers. A slab of marble sits atop the stainless steel worktop for pastry work.
A Multivac vacuum-packaging machine works in conjunction with three Grant water baths, about which Demetre is particularly enthusiastic. "The baths are absolutely so precise," he says. About 90% of the menu, including lamb, belly pork and pig's head, is slow-cooked ahead, either in the combi-oven or the water baths. During service they are brought up to temperatures of 55°C, 57°C or 62°C in the water bath and then seared on the plancha to finish.
Plates leave the kitchen from a hot pass equipped with four 250W quartz bulbs on each of the two levels. The pass, and all the fabrication, was constructed and fitted by the Carford Group. To one end of the pass is a Rollergrill fixed electric salamander with eight quartz tubes which Demetre describes as "phenominally hot". All plates are flashed under the grill at the last minute to ensure they're hot enough to make the journey upstairs to the restaurant.
Under-counter refrigeration is four three-door Williams cabinets, three of which are sited either side of the island suite and one in the pastry area. While the size and shape of the kitchen remains unchanged from its Tartufo days, a lift shaft was removed to make way for a walk-in coldroom and freezer.
Demetre is particularly pleased at how labour-efficient the suite has proved to be. "If the cooking suite was against the wall, then only two people could work on the solid top at one time," he says. "But with the island suite I can have three people each side." Also, having a central island suite has helped Demetre to create a team approach to cooking rather than operating as classical sections.
"I wanted to do it that way so as not to stifle talent, and the island suite has made it easier to adapt to that way of working," he says. "It's the way for any kitchen to go."
63-64 Frith Street
London W1D 3JW
020 7734 4545
Owners Anthony Demetre and Will Smith
Total investment £600,000
The story so far
Within six weeks of it opening in May, every major London restaurant critic had been through the doors of Anthony Demetre and Will Smith's first venture, Arbutus, in London's Soho. Phenomenal critical acclaim appears to have guaranteed a steady stream of custom.
But Demetre and Smith are keen to prove that the 75-seat restaurant, on the former site of early 1990s cult eaterie Bistrot Bruno (where Demetre worked as sous chef), is not just the critics' darling. The pair are confident that Arbutus is just what Frith Street needed - and that great food and wine, combined with a sensible pricing structure, will keep people coming.