Regular visitors to the Whitechapel Gallery may not have noticed the change of operator in the Dining Room - the warm, mirror-lined wooden interior remains the same. But the change will likely become apparent when they sit down to eat.
Smart Hospitality, which formed as a joint venture between Robin Bidgood, previously chief executive of Tate Catering, and former managing director of Quantum Leap Events Greg Lawson, took over the contract last December. In doing so they began a partnership with 2009 Catey Chef Award winner and chef-patron of Michelin-starred Murano Angela Hartnett, who came on board as consultant.
Until that point, City catering specialist Vacherin had been the operator, but it pulled out of its five-year deal ahead of schedule after it found the contract to be "financially unsustainable".
on-trend menu format
Bidgood and Hartnett put their heads together and created an on-trend menu format that is very much in keeping with the so-hip-it-hurts area of the East End in which the gallery sits.
It focuses on seasonal versatility. Dishes are labelled as either small or large plates, and diners are encouraged to order a selection of dishes to share. Or they can order the small plates, such as warm sprouting broccoli with Pecorino and hazelnuts (£3.75) or braised ham hock and gribiche salad (£5.95), as starters.
The likes of pan-fried lemon sole fillets with brown shrimp and caper butter (£14.95) and polenta with sautéed mushrooms and poached eggs (£11.95) are equally appropriate as main courses. Side orders, which include heady and delicious truffle chips and honey and thyme roasted parsnips, are available separately (all £3.50).
According to head chef Rod Thompson, it's a winning formula. "While the smaller tables tend to order the dishes more traditionally, larger parties are really getting into the small plates," he says. "Some will order a selection tapas style, finish those and order again, but different dishes. They tie up the table for a couple of hours but eat nearly everything on the menu."
The dishes are prepared using fresh, seasonal ingredients and kept deliberately simple and light while the menu can be reprinted daily if necessary.
"We've got some lovely dishes like asparagus and egg at the moment; a great pea soup," explains Hartnett. "We don't want the menu to be too rich because we want people to be able to come every day."
As a result, she meets weekly with recently appointed senior head chef Emma Duggan and Thompson to get feedback about what's selling and what isn't, and add two new specials to the menu. "The menu is constantly changing and this way we can build up a repertoire of dishes that we know work," she says.
flexible wine list
A succinct and considered wine list is compiled by Bidgood in collaboration with Hartnett's Murano head sommelier Marc Andrea and aims to be as fluid and changeable as the main menu.
"You don't want a wine list that you can buy in the supermarket," explains Hartnett. "You want one that's different and this suits the style of the restaurant."
The intimate space seats 46, including the private dining room (up to 14) and according to Thompson, who has worked at the restaurant since last May, the menu has seen a big uplift in business since Smart Hospitality reopened its doors in January, particularly during lunch service, and on Thursdays and Mondays when the restaurant expects to do at least 50 covers.
He adds: "We put in a lot of hard work at the start to get up and running and get the dishes right and it's worked."
Sample dishes from the menu
Grilled Cornish mackerel, pickled fennel and harissa dressing £4.95
Deep fried whitebait, spicy anchovy mayonnaise £6.95
Devilled kidneys with butter bean stew £5.85
Pan-fried gurnard, baby squid, bouillabaisse £14.25
Slow-roasted belly of pork, red cabbage purée £13.25
Braised ox cheeks, celeriac purée, red wine sauce £14.95
Lemon posset, shortbread biscuit £4.50
Warm Agen prune and almond tart £4.50
Pomegranate, pear and blood orange salad £4.50
Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, City of London E1 7QX
Tel: 020 7522 7888