Since opening in Chelsea in 2011, Joe Mercer Nairne and David O'Connor's charming neighbourhood restaurant has won a legion of fans, glowing reviews and even a Michelin star. Tom Vaughan asks what the secret is
For many, Medlar sprang out of nowhere two years ago. "My business partner David and I had been looking for a site for perhaps two years," explains chef-patron Joe Mercer Nairne. "Restaurant agents weren't really that interested in us as a sole operator with no plans to expand."
One thing they did have, though, was stellar reviews - followed by a Michelin star in late 2012. For a small fish in a big pond, they've made a hell of a splash.
While a lot of this is to do with O'Connor's dapper front of house management - plus the swish interior of mirrors and green banquettes - it is Mercer Nairne's great-value cooking that steals the headlines. With a set menu priced at just £45 for three courses at dinner (and £26 for an almost identical menu at lunch) and laden with premium ingredients - turbot, scallops, foie gras -plus a Chelsea postcode to boot, something surely has to give?
"My kitchen GP is pretty terrible," says Mercer Nairne. "David and I talk about it quite a lot. But we still feel like we need to win customers over and offer good value. We still feel like a new â¨restaurant."
While that's a typically modest response, few diners still need convincing of Medlar's quality, especially when Mercer Nairne's gutsy, modern European cooking delivers time and time again.
Take the crab ravioli signature dish: "It wasn't supposed to stay on the menu but people love it," says Mercer Nairne. "I don't have a problem with giving people what they want - it still accounts for 50% of our starters."
The kitchen picks its own crab meat. "We could buy it in pre-picked but they use the smaller crabs they can't sell and it's a different texture. At least that's what I tell myself as it's a lot of work for us," says Mercer Nairne.
He binds it with scallop mousse, alongside chervil and chives, to form the ravioli filling. The bones are then used to make a bisque with brandy, chilli and a splash of cream.
"It needs to be intense and not too heavy, so it has to be just a splash, and we refresh it with some lemon and orange juice."
The final components are samphire, then a small portion of leeks sweated out in butter.
Because of the differing levels of skill in the kitchen, some dishes take more work than others. The current dish of roast poussin is one of the more labour-intensive. The legs are taken off, deboned and rolled into a ballotine with chicken mousse, before being poached and browned off in service. The crown is roasted and the wings are braised in the jus and deboned. To this trio, add â¨a cauliflower puree, spÁ¤tzle â¨(Austrian pasta cum dumplings) sautéed with girolles, deep-fried crispy leeks and a jus made from the bones.
"It's typical of what we do - we always do quite a lot of work on the animals," says Mercer Nairne. "Because it's chicken and cauliflower, it's not a massive seller but it's always had great feedback."
A summer dessert on a current menu is similarly typical of the work the kitchen puts in. Lemon and vanilla chiboust - which is a mixture of crème pÁ¢tissière and meringue - is served on a sponge base, with British strawberries, strawberry sorbet, strawberry gel, confit lemon zest and honeycomb.
All the hard work is paying dividends, with weekly covers in the 75-seat restaurant numbering 700, and paying the bills.
Even with the star, the pair have no interest in hiking the prices: "It's about building a reputation," says Mercer Nairne. "We want to be here for the long term. There's no point having a five-year plan, we have a 15-year plan."
Sample dishes from the menu
Ajo blanco with roast Orkney scallops, squid, apple, grapes and celery
Crisp calf's brain with smoked duck breast, aioli, pink fir potatoes and tardivo
Foie gras and prune terrine with smoked duck, green beans and toasted brioche
Rack of lamb with confit shoulder, tongue, petit pois Á la franÁ§aise and Jersey Royals
Sautéed gnocchi with fresh peas, baby artichokes, datterini tomatoes and Sainte-Maure frais
Chargrilled red mullet with San Marzano tomato tart fine, smoked mackerel, aubergine caviar and salmoriglio
Lemon curd ice cream with blackcurrant compote and meringues
Walnut tartlet with crème fraÁ®che sorbet and freshly grated coconut
Cardamon custard with saffron oranges, pomegranate and langues de chat
Three-course lunch, £26, three-course dinner, £45
438 King's Road
London SW10 0LJ
Tel: 020 7349 1900
http://www.medlarrestaurant.co.uk/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">medlarrestaurant.co.uk