London's Heddon Street has a feast of restaurants, but Belowzero's menu stands out from the crowd in focusing on modern European dishes. Rosalind Mullen reports
A chap in black, wearing an earphone, comes to collect you at the door when you arrive at Belowzero. It's got the sort of vibe where you imagine the paparazzi are going to leap out (which of course they don't) as you head away from the throng, down the stairs and into the dark, slinky Moose dining room and Wolf lounge bar below.
Several things hit you immediately. First, it's got a slightly nightclubby feel. Second, it seems to appeal to a cosmopolitan clientele - lots of American and French voices around us. Third, the service - considering point one - is unexpectedly attentive, friendly, and for want of a better word, proper.
But it's the food that we need to concentrate on, and that proved to be equally impressive and surprising. The man heading the kitchen is Sean Marshall, formerly of London's Mint Leaf, Prism and Bank - where he was senior sous chef for 10 years.
He joined Belowzero in February following the refurbishment of the privately owned business, which opened in 2005 on Heddon Street - a pedestrianised area off Regent Street buzzing with cafés and restaurants, such as Momo, Aubaine and the Living Room.
Once installed behind the stove, Marshall has changed the menu. Whereas before it had dishes from around the world, he has made it modern European - with a bias towards British.
"People want a taste of London," says Marshall. "We have a heavy footfall of tourists and they can't find contemporary British food in many other places."
The launch of the summer menu sees good use of British ingredients. Starters such as Cointreau-glazed quail, poached kumquat and baby watercress salad (£7.50) and baby artichoke, grilled asparagus, poached quail egg, chive beurre blanc (£11.50) are followed by mains such as grilled baby haddock, buttered Jersey royals and pea purée (£15), and roast guinea fowl, baby vegetables and grape broth (£17).
Marshall's favourites include his seaweed-cured salmon starter served with pickled ginger and Chardonnay dressing (£9) and the poached rabbit leg, served with fava beans, sugar snaps and tarragon foam (£16).
All the puddings are naughty - and rather alcoholic - although Marshall swears they are light because he doesn't have a sweet tooth. There is, for instance, raspberry ripple soufflé, vanilla vodka ice-cream (£5.50), and, to add a quirky element, an "Eton tidy" (£5.50) as opposed to an Eton mess.
Marshall is clearly dedicated but deeply frustrated by the skills shortage. He inherited seven kitchen staff, but with only four left he prefers to work doubly hard until he finds the right talent, rather than recruit chefs who can't "really cook". It also gives him a chance to consolidate gross profit.
The nature of this underground 74-seat restaurant means it can be difficult to attract lunch trade, which can be anything from 10 to 30 covers. To that end, an alfresco dining area has been opened upstairs.
Evenings are predictably busier, with 20 covers on Tuesday and Wednesday, while in the run-up to the weekend, numbers hit the hundreds. Average spend is about £35-£40 a head.
"I have slightly raised the price of the menu. It's more competitive and we now [after the refurbishment] have a formal dining room, so the price reflects all that," says Marshall.
What's on the menu
- Summer truffle, white asparagus and sole terrine, keta vinaigrette, £9
- Carpaccio of tuna with candied citrus dressing, £9
- Home-cured reindeer, sun-dried pepper and caper salad, £10
- Squash, marrow and spinach millefeuille, borlotti bean salad, £9
- Pan-fried stone bass, grilled fennel, nut brown caper butter, £16
- Grilled rib-eye steak, £21.50
- Grilled swordfish, £15.50
- Grilled maize-fed chicken, £14
- Summer fruit and Pimm's trifle, £6.50
- Banana and mascarpone mousse, macadamia brittle, £5
- Apple tarte tatin, Calvados ice-cream, £5
You could spend hours and hours at Belowzero, maybe starting off with a cocktail in the Reindeer lounge, heading down for dinner and then moving into the Absolut IceBar later - which is operated on licence by the owners. Like its Scandanavian counterpart, it never rises above 5°C, so you need to wear an insulated cape. Yup, it's a chilled venue.
Belowzero, 31-33 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BN Tel: 020 7478 8910 Website:www.belowzerolondon.com