To enter Umu, the latest restaurant from the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC), you simply place your hand in a square hole to the side of the smooth wood-panelled frontage and wait while a noiseless sliding door opens in front of you. Beyond is a room lined with rich wall coverings and floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets holding collections of sake, and an open kitchen in the centre banked by tsukuri (sashimi) tables, attended by bustling staff in black uniforms.
The Tony Chi-designed restaurant fairly oozes style and exclusivity, in keeping with the style of Abela's culinary projects to date. Dining at Umu is expected to cost up to £240 a head for its authentic Kyoto cuisine - it's the only place in London where this is available, we're told - with contemporary twists from chef Ichiro Kubota. The restaurant does not officially open until 1 September, yet even now it bustles with staff and chefs, serving Abela and his friends and colleagues, who come in regularly to taste dishes and assess progress. General manager Eric Kebbab has spent months on rigorous front-of-house training, while Japanese chefs are regularly flown in to demonstrate their skills.
So, as Abela stands back from the limelight (it seems he doesn't give interviews to anyone these days), his staff will be pushing his strategy forward. But who are the men on the MARC front line?
Wine at Umu Hands up, all those who think Japanese food doesn't go with wine. You could have included me in that - until I went to Nobu and Zuma, writes Fiona Sims.
Both these Japanese eateries have outstanding wine lists with clever sommeliers who have found exciting matches for Japanese food. And so has Umu, with 300 wines on its list and more than 70 sakes.
Head sommelier Guillaume Glipa readily admits that not all of the wines on his list go with Umu's food, but we're talking Mayfair clientele, here - and they will want their first-growth clarets and heady Napa Chardonnays, regardless. "We've got all the big names, which are not the best match for this food, but if I do my job properly, they'll let me show them the way," says Bordeaux-born Glipa.
The way starts in Alsace. Glipa favours Riesling and Pinot Gris from producers such as Zind-Humbrecht, Ostertag and Marcel Deiss, and has German wines galore, from the Mosel to the Pfalz. Austria is a current favourite, with GrÂner Veltliner from Nigl and Riesling from Pichler topping the bill. However, the list also includes Japanese food-friendly wines from Italy, Spain, Australia and even the UK - he has Nyetimber's award-winning bubbly.
Talking about bubbly, Glipa has an all-time favourite match for Japanese food: Champagne. "Japanese food is very subtle, very delicate, and Champagne works very well," he says.
Glipa's personal favourite is 1990 Bollinger (at £180 a bottle in Umu). "I love it because it's so austere, it's not an extravagant style," he says. In fact, if money were no object, he would kick off a meal with Jacques Selosse NV Brut (£70), go to the Bolly for the main course, and finish with 1988 Salon (at £195). This is hardly everyday drinking, so which other, cheaper Champagnes work? "Our house Champagne Delamotte works beautifully," says Glipa (it costs £12.50 a glass).
Glipa also believes there is a case for drinking red wines with Japanese food, saying that Burgundy makes a great match, as does Cabernet France from the Loire. "Saumur-Champigny, particularly," he adds. "It's the vegetal, green pepper aspect of the wine that goes with Umu's food, especially the fattier cuts of fish, such as tuna belly. And yes, we recommend serving this slightly chilled."
You can't have a Japanese restaurant without sake, and Umu reckons it has the best line-up in town, including the most expensive sake in the city at £300 a bottle. There are 70 different sakes, in bottles ranging in size from 500ml to 1.8 litres, and in price from £32 to £300, with all the categories covered (see Drinks News, page 44). However, though Glipa has worked in a Japanese restaurant, he didn't have much to do with the sake; enter his Japanese assistant, Yoko Noto.
Until she started working at Umu, Noto herself didn't know much about sake, so the pair have been mugging up on the subject. "I couldn't have done it without Yoko. Just reading the bottle labels would have been a challenge," admits Glipa.
To make things easier for themselves, and the customers, Glipa and Noto have organised the sake into three different flavour categories: sou-shu ("fresh sake"), jun-shu ("rich sake"), and kun-shu ("fragrant sake"). "The idea is to increase the flavour intensity of the sake as the meal progresses - just as you would do wine," Glipa says.
Ichiro Kubota head chef at Umu
First up is Ichiro Kubota, Umu's head chef. In the hotel La Villa in Corsica earlier this year, Abela tasted a starter and immediately requested a meeting with the chef who had prepared it - because he could discern the Japanese hand at work behind the dish. And a Japanese hand was exactly what MARC was after for Umu. The chef Abela met was 30-year-old Kubota, who was swiftly presented with an offer he couldn't refuse: to open what could be one of London's most exciting new restaurants.
Already, Kubota has Umu in an advanced state of readiness for its official September opening, as a pre-opening tasting made clear. We were tickled by pieces of raw sardine delicately marinated in vinegar and topped with grated white radish; and three sumptuous fried rolls of minced quail, foie gras and mint came wrapped in shiso leaves and then a skin-thin layer of potato, all dipped at the table in a blend of ground green tea and sea salt. Both dishes were a treat for both the tongue and the eye. Though Kubota was insistent that his fine-tuning was not yet finalised, his protests fell on deaf ears when a shojin-style white miso soup arrived, laden with lotus buds - a mouth-melting, coconutty and slightly fish-scented, comforting pillow of a miso soup, sweet and rich in flavour.
On such evidence, there is no doubt that Kubota's arrival in London is a coup both for our taste-buds and for MARC. There is also the fact that, although largely anonymous when he went to the one-Michelin-starred kitchen of chef Christophe Bacquiâ on Corsica in 2003, Kubota already had quite a pedigree in Kyoto as the son of respected chef Mamoru Kubota.
From the age of three, Kubota was going up mountains with his father to pick mushrooms, herbs and wild vegetables, with his father's culinary lessons ringing in his ears. "My father would always pick his own vege-tables because he didn't trust any suppliers," he says. "He said it was the only way he could promise his customers the best."
Strangely, however, he says it was European food that actually inspired him to become a chef. "I remember tasting a potage with my uncle as a teenager and it was excellent," he recalls. "Then I saw a chef with a big white hat, pouring sherry into a pan, and big flames, and I thought, ‘Wow, they are like magicians'."
That interest caused a few problems, however. He was reminded that he was his father's son, and told that he should preserve the culinary traditions of Kyoto (see panel). Accordingly, Kubota trained under Yukio Takanezawa at the Tsuruya restaurant in Kyoto, once patronised by the Japanese Imperial household. When the original Tsuruya closed, Kubota was offered the head chef's job at a new branch in Tokyo.
Kubota, however, wanted to move on. "I was struggling and wanted to open my mind," he says, adding that the hierarchical nature of Japanese kitchens left him disillusioned. "You have to work for two years just cleaning and cutting vegetables, and you cannot even look at the head chef," he says. "It was like the army."
Given this history, should we be surprised that he is now returning to Japanese cuisine? He answers that the time he spent in France has satisfied his urge for new ideas, which he will bring to his native cuisine. He stresses that this does not mean fusion cuisine - rather, he says, it is about being creative, taking the authentic cuisine of Japan (and of Kyoto, in particular) and giving it a modern twist.
Eric Kebbab general manager at Umu
Working closely with head chef Ichiro Kubota as general manager is an unlikely figure, yet the restaurant couldn't be in safer hands. That's because North African Eric Kebbab once had the rare honour of being the only non-Japanese restaurant manager of one of the best Japanese restaurants in the country, Suntory in London.
He spent 15 years there, working his way up and gaining a connoisseur's appreciation of the food, absorbing the manners and cultures of Japan, and learning the language to add to his command of English, Arabic, French and Berber.
Suntory closed last year, so when Kebbab was told about Umu he didn't think twice. "I have known Mr Abela for 12 years," he explains, "so I knew it was a serious project, because he knows his product, he's a gastronomic dictionary and his expectations are really high."
Kebbab has been instrumental in putting together the training manuals for Umu's staff - seven head waiters with 10 runners, who have all received around 10 weeks of intensive training in the restaurant.
This was much needed as the Kyoto style of food and service, particularly the Kaiseki menus involving as many as 10 courses, must be served in a precise order. "Kaiseki menus are very technical and the order is very important," Kebbab says. "So the staff have been trained to know not just what the Kaiseki dishes are but the history of the tradition."
He adds: "We also have three training manuals on the food, service and culture. Staff have to know all our products by heart, where the fish comes from, and how to serve Japanese tea properly [there are seven kinds at Umu]. They also have to know how to deal with Japanese customers - it's important to recognise who is hosting the meal, for instance. Two months ago, the staff didn't have a clue about this type of food or service. Now they are queuing up to answer any question about the food and culture."
14-16 Bruton Place
Tel: 020 7499 8881
As the imperial capital of Japan until 1869, Kyoto is steeped in spiritual and historical heritage. The city's culinary traditions were often shaped by those trying to ingratiate themselves to the emperor with gifts from far-flung lands. Buddhist monks, especially, travelled to China and India, and came back with ingredients and cuisines that still influence Kyoto's cuisine today.
One such cuisine was shojin, a very strict form of vegetarianism developed by Zen Buddhists in China on their path to enlightenment. Its approach - respect for the highest quality of vegetable, light seasoning and meticulous preparation - is still felt in Japanese gourmet cooking today. "I really care about the vegetables," says Umu's head chef, Ichiro Kubota. "Of course, fish is essential with Japanese cuisine, but vegetables are the big issue. Without the proper vegetables, I can't serve any fish."
Kubota will also be offering kaiseki menus, a tasting selection derived from the series of small dishes that would accompany tea-drinking rituals. Nowadays, kaiseki is a formal menu for special occasions and, where it was once based on shojin principles, it can now include fish dishes. Umu will be offering more modern interpretations of the tasting sequence as well as traditional choices.
Antonin Bonnet executive chef at Morton's
In April this year, MARC was looking at three new openings in the space of six months, with three new chefs, as yet untested in London. To the outside world, it looked like a rookie team. One of its chefs, however, has been involved with Marlon Abela for longer than his corporation has existed - 32-year-old Frenchman Antonin Bonnet, who first joined Abela four years ago as a personal chef.
Two years after that, his boss bought Morton's, the private members' club at the top of London's Berkeley Square, and invited Bonnet to become its executive chef. A great deal of investment and another two years later (in May), the newly refurbished club opened, with Bonnet overseeing four kitchens and 30 chefs.
This was a challenging mission, but Morton's had its four floors (incorporating private dining, bar, restaurant and meeting rooms) utterly transformed from the dark and sleazy operation it had become. Bonnet is delighted. "I'm disgusting," he laughs, "because I'm having a hell of a good time. I was in the right place at the right time."
His cheeky grin tells you that good fortune is only half the story; his career in top-end restaurants is the other. Born in Lyon, Bonnet trained for three years at Jean-Andrâ Charial's L'Oustau de BaumaniÅ re in Provence, then worked under Michel Bras at his three-star restaurant, before going on to California to work for Wolfgang Puck at both Spago and Granita in Los Angeles. He had no trouble stepping in to open the Greenhouse in London in April (former head chef Paul Merrett left at the end of February) while waiting for Bjorn van der Horst to arrive.
Bonnet thus came to Abela as an accomplished chef and, in those first two years, obviously impressed him further - enough to be offered the appreciably larger job. The familiarity also gave him an edge on the food front. "Because I have been cooking for him for a few years, if he says he wants something, I know exactly what he is looking for," Bonnet explains.
This, it becomes apparent, is a good thing when setting up a restaurant with MARC, because Abela is from the hands-on school of restaurateurs, and not only has an eye for detail but likes to see those details put in place, even down to the food.
Does this bother Bonnet? "He's been eating at the best places all his life, so he's got fine tastes," Bonnet says. "And he knows how to build a dish. Plenty of chefs know how to put menus together, and it might make a Michelin star, but Mr Abela has the experience to push it up to two or three stars."
Michelin stars, of course, are not awarded to private establishments. Rather, Bonnet says that his kitchen cooks for the demands and preferences of individual guests, for whom membership starts at £800 per year. "I want the people to come and feel like they are at home," he says. "It is a family. People can ring up and, if they want something special, I am more than happy to do it."
The restaurant menu itself should already satisfy most demands. Bonnet admits that he has been spoiled all his life with produce, and the likes of turbot, Bresse chicken, foie gras, Scottish langoustines and veal are all on parade. This is not conventional classicism, though. Scallops might come with roasted peach, and beef with banana fries and espresso sauce. "The classical is the core, the line," Bonnet says, "and then along that line there is enough flexibility to move ideas with the seasons and to adapt or tweak the recipes."
Take the starter of summer vegetables "gargouillous", a dish that he borrowed from Michel Bras ("really, the one who taught me how to cook"). This salad is adaptable, changing its components with the seasons. At the moment he also does another version with tomatoes - nine varieties, including green zebra, Andine and Old Russian Purple, all perfectly in season and arranged boldly on the plate with mozzarella and purple basil. "It's about respecting the produce. It's that simple," Bonnet laughs, then adds: "Or maybe it's that complicated."
28 Berkeley Square
Tel: 020 7499 0363
John Davey general manager of Morton's
John Davey knows a thing or two about opening restaurants and clubs. He has spent his career doing just that, opening Bibendum for Conran and Cecconi's for the Plaza group, in addition to his stints at the Lanesborough, the Square, Mosimann's at the club, and abroad for Guy Savoy and at the ChÆ'teau de Banyol in Lyon.
You would expect that there would not be much that could impress the man, yet Davey says that the research and organisation at MARC has been a new experience for him. "The first time I visited Morton's, I couldn't have been more impressed by the wine list," he says, "but it wasn't until I started working here that I noticed the passion for the food and wine, and the standard that the people working here had. The first dish I had from the head chef, Antonin, was unbelievable."
Davey's job is, as he puts it, to add some panache to the service at Morton's. "I like to have very high standards but keep it friendly," he says. "In a private members' club like this, a lot is about recognition - learning the guests' history, knowing what they like to eat, which is their favourite chair, what they do, their interests."
He adds: "I want people to know who the restaurant manager is, who the barman is and feel they know the staff well. That's the difficult bit to teach. I can talk to my staff all day and give pointers, but the only way I have learnt is by watching, listening and looking.
"Our philosophy is that we want to be great, professional. We just want to give everyone a MARC experience. That's what food and wine is all about, but you need a touch to go with it."
Bjorn van der Horst head chef at the Greenhouse
It's 9am and the Greenhouse is already buzzing with energy. Bjorn van der Horst (left), the head chef at MARC's flagship restaurant, has been up all night. Ever since Michelin inspectors made a visit a few weeks ago, and announced they would be returning soon, van der Horst has had to bring forward his plan to be "spot on from September" to July.
Van der Horst arrived in London in May, following Paul Merrett's departure from the Greenhouse in February. At short notice, he left his post as executive chef at MARC's casual dining venue Gaia, in Connecticut, to head the Mayfair restaurant.
In only a few months, the chef has created a buzz throughout the capital and among its critics. AA Gill gave the Greenhouse four out of five stars, Jan Moir hailed it as one of the best restaurants in London, while Giles Coren claims to have been "utterly dazzled" by the menu.
For van der Horst, who was chef de cuisine at the New York restaurant Picholine when Abela offered him a place in MARC, this could be the start of a journey towards three Michelin stars.
"Mr Abela offered me a future when he asked me to join MARC," he says. "I was attracted by his words and his passion for food and wine. My dream has always been to have three Michelin stars. If I'm going to work this hard and this many hours, that's what I want, and it wasn't happening in New York because there's no Michelin there. I thought I'd return to Europe with MARC in three to five years' time. I didn't expect to get here so quickly."
Despite his New York accent, Europe is the chef's home. Born in Switzerland to a Dutch father and a Franco-Spanish mother, 31-year-old van der Horst spent his childhood travelling in Europe with his parents, and living in New York and England, where he was thrown out of school at the age of 13.
To avoid going back, he joined the French "companion" programme, after becoming attracted to the life of a chef while working in a local restaurant. From the age of 14 onwards, he trained in restaurants around France, including with the Haeberlin brothers at L'Auberge de l'Ile in Alsace, with Joel Robuchon, and with Alain Ducasse in his Paris and Monte Carlo restaurants. Later, he moved to New York and became chef de cuisine at Picholine under chef-owner Terrance Brennan. It was there that he met Abela.
His menu at the Greenhouse is classic with contemporary twists, and his Escoffier cookbook regularly plays a part in the creation process. He includes one Escoffier recipe in the menu each day because it helps to challenge his 17-strong brigade. "We reproduce the recipes from Escoffier because it's interesting, high quality and simple. It seems to be so difficult for chefs to do something simple these days," he says. "Many chefs want to announce themselves so quickly, but they haven't got the technique. It's like being a carpenter and only learning how to make one type of chair."
His dishes, therefore, include: chilled pigs' trotters en gelâe with salt-cured foie gras and apple (one of his personal favourites); Eastern Mediterranean-inspired baklava of quail with mousseron mushrooms, foie gras and rhubarb marmalade; and pan-seared John Dory with Parmesan dumplings, clams and tomato confit.
Apart from Escoffier, who or what else inspires him? "My real inspiration is from the streets. Art, politics, fashion, love, listening to someone speak about what they do - that's inspiring."
When asked how that translates to his food, he gives the example of his pan-seared foie gras with espresso syrup and amaretto foam, inspired by an almond frappachino in Starbucks. "At Picholine," he recalls, "we had to come up with a new foie gras dish every day, and there are only so many marmalades you can do. Finally, I based a dish on an almond frappachino, which is served with a white chocolate martini. It's about ingredients and techniques. What you see in the street is authentic and pure and real and true. That's the words I would use to describe the menu."
27a Hay's Mews
Tel: 020 7499 3331
Jean-Marie Miorada restaurant manager of the Greenhouse
Restaurant manager Jean-Marie Miorada (right, with head chef Bjorn van der Horst) admits that he was nervous when putting together a team for the Greenhouse last year. Miorada, who has worked in London for Simpson's-in-the-Strand, Quaglino's and the Criterion, joined MARC last year, first working at Morton's, then moving to the Greenhouse.
"I know what Mr Abela's expectations are and it's a lot of work and pressure," he says. "I had to put together the team here, and find the right balance of people and characters to make the team interesting and exciting. Mr Abela wants a friendly service, but we had to get the perfect balance between friendly and professional. I didn't want a stiff team - I don't want to run an army."
Miorada needn't have worried. The service at the Greenhouse is flawlessly professional, yet friendly and relaxed. But then, training is rigorous - a 40-variety range of cheeses plays a major part in the service, and staff must know all of them by heart.
"You have to estimate how far guests want to be entertained or left alone," Miorada says. "Our service is all about atmosphere and ambience. It should be so good you don't realise it - there's no better compliment than that."