The reopened Ivy is keeping the classics faith while also tapping into the zeitgeist with lighter, healthier-eating, Asian-influenced dishes. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
The history of the Ivy dates back the best part of a century to when it opened in 1917 as an unlicensed Italian café. But it was its relaunch in 1990 at the hands of Messrs Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King that propelled this West End restaurant to something akin to superstar status. With Fernando Peire at the helm as maître d', the two restaurateurs turned the Ivy into one of the most sought-after, see-and-be-seen hotspots in London.
The Ivy moved to its current ownership in 2005 when Richard Caring bought parent company Caprice Holdings. Peire, absent from the restaurant for a decade, returned as director, and the Ivy's star continued to shine.
Executive chef Gary Lee
A bold move was needed to restore the Ivy to its former glory, and so the restaurant closed at the start of this year for a major refurbishment - its first in 25 years. It reopened to overwhelming critical and commercial triumph on 1 June, but success was by no means guaranteed, as executive chef Gary Lee explains: "Can you imagine the pressure? If we got this wrongâ¦ Can you get an inkling of what that felt like? It was a bit like trying to break into Buckingham Palace to do a song and dance X-Factor-style in front of the Queen."
The pressure and determination to get it right have certainly helped Lee and his team pack in the tables for lunch and dinner every day since relaunch, averaging around 3,200 covers a week - a figure that is only expected to climb as we move closer to Christmas.
An extremely loyal clientele - an elderly couple at the table next to me said they have been coming regularly for the best part of 40 years - and the constant evolution of consumer tastes don't necessarily make the happiest of bedfellows, yet Lee says the menu has changed "massively".
"It's certainly a lot lighter than what it was known for previously," he explains. "We work with trends because that's what people expect, but at the same time it's predominantly about healthy eating. If you work down the middle of the menu, you've got all the classics that we had on before; but around the outside it's a new way of us cooking."
The signature shepherd's pie
The classics Lee is referring to include the restaurant's signature shepherd's pie, a dish so popular it's produced in 30kg batches four times a week using a combination of both lamb and beef mince, fresh tomatoes and a languid, slow braise of three to four hours.
The "new way of cooking", on the other hand, lets Lee flex his skills as a qualified Chinese cookery chef with a multitude of Asian-inspired dishes, such as salmon and hamachi sashimi, avocado wasabi and pickled gari (£14); and togarashi popcorn shrimp with chilli mayonnaise (£12.75).
"When I joined the Ivy, there were two or three dishes on the menu with an Asian influence. It was a case of saying, when we do have Asian dishes, let's do them properly and make sure we can deliver them. I knew it was a risk and that we'd either be chastised or looked at very favourably. It's what I believe in and everyone else around me was having the same sort of thought, so I said right, let's just go for it. It's taken off so well."
Fish and seafood, served classically, such as Cornish plaice fillet with cockles, vermouth and shore vegetables (£24), and Asian-style, such as miso-blackened salmon, sesame greens and pickled kohlrabi (£18.50), have proved increasingly popular among punters, largely due to the appetite for healthier eating.
As a result, somewhat paradoxically, desserts are now appearing on more bills as diners feel more inclined to finish off with a spot of indulgence. The extent to which they undo their virtuous starters and mains depends entirely on their choice of pud. The likes of a sloe gin fizz jelly with lemon sorbet (£10.25) is likely to be less blow-the-diet than a frosted maple syrup, pecan and Bourbon sundae with caramelised bananas (£8.75). Both, however, will be delicious.
From the menu
- Tossed salad of barbecued squid, chorizo, toasted quinoa and preserved lemon £10
- 'Tian Zhan' spiced chicken wings with sesame and coriander £8.75
- Grilled and roasted Cornish lamb with slow-burnt garlic and rosemary £24.50
- Roast Devonshire chicken for two with stuffing and pommes sarladaise £44
- Miso-blackened salmon with sesame greens and pickled kohlrabi £18.50
- Pistachio pithivier with roasted figs and blackberries £10.75
- Indian doughballs with orange blossom ice-cream £7.50
- Vanilla cheesecake with ruby plums, hazelnuts and brambles £7.25
Lobster with coastal greens
1-5 West Street, London WC2H 9NQ