Owner Henry Tonga and head chef Yoshi Yamada have reinterpreted the ingredient-driven ethos of the River Café with Tempo, an Italian restaurant in Mayfair that opened in July. Douglas Blyde reports.
Tempo is close to the Curzon cinema beside a shisha café. Designer Daniel Hopwood brings glowing glamour to this 55-seat London venue, which was formerly Pappagallo. Tilted mirrors reflect retro lights; Amalfi blue chairs contrast tabletops which resemble bookbinding paper as a nod to neighbouring bookseller Heywood Hill.
Upstairs, the private dining room joins a bar with decorative plaster commissioned by the Duchess of Sutherland. Here, neoprene chairs revolve, tables are tall and white and the bar counter stone. Formerly of Stringfellows and Aqua, mixologist Douglas Graham-Leigh masters the Aviation cocktail here - a rarity in London. A painting bought by the grandfather of Tempo's owner, Henry Togna, shows a jugged hare and opened bottle of Chianti.
Until its lease with the Crown Estates expired last October, Togna ran townhouse hotel 22 Jermyn Street. Instead of retiring, Togna opened Tempo as a means of reinterpreting the ingredient-driven ethos of his favourite restaurant, the River Café. "Ruth Rodgers has been incredibly helpful, even sharing her prosciutto supplier, La Credenza," Togna says.
Head chef Yoshi Yamada, aged 34, cut his teeth at three of Italy's revered restaurants - including Don Alfonso 1890 - then Tokyo's L'Atelier de Robuchon, London's restaurant Gordon Ramsay and St Alban - where he was sous chef to Francesco Mazzei. However, he realised his love of Mediterranean food as a student. To fund an economics degree he worked nights at Tokyo's Basta Pasta and still remembers "the aroma of the bagna cauda".
After service, Yamada often laps the dining room to greet customers - who range from the tourists that Togna has beckoned in, to the CEO of Japanese bank Numora. Visible on my visit was a well-known wine writer.
Knowing Yamada's origins, some diners admit an anticipation of fusion food. "There are Japanese influences," says Yamada, describing his fritte made with tempura batter spiked with San Pellegrino sparkling water. He also uses a sashimi knife to prepare wild sea bass Carpaccio (£12.50). "And Japanese and Italian bottarga are comparable," he adds.
However, the factors uniting the nations are less about specific dishes and ingredients and more about passion, palate and appetite. "When you switch on Japanese TV you see cookery shows," he says. Yamada also believes Japan's interest in Italy stems from wine, specifically "the arrival of Super Tuscans".
Cleanly printed across an A3 page, Yamada's menu uses plentiful Italian terminology which can lead to occasional misunderstandings. "It's not immediately obvious, particularly to Americans, that our signature ‘per due' dishes are for two," he says. Togna adds: "Unlike Giorgio Locatelli's Tinello, we don't say ‘small eats' - we prefer cicchetti."
Priced from £2 to £4, these crostini include dressed crab, cubed, silky tuna and, showing the influence of Yamada's former boss Mazzei, Calabrian N'duja.
Driven to extract maximum flavours, Yamada and Togna taste dishes every Thursday. Arising from the last meeting, whole brill (£52) replaces halibut in a "per due" signature dish "which looks fantastic in the middle of table", Yamada says. Another diner favourite is the enduring, home-made tortelli pockets of English wild rabbit, pistachio and sage. For Tempo's first autumn, Yamada also roasts grouse breasts in the new Rational with Barolo, white onions and, from the restaurant's terrace, rosemary and thyme (£28.50).
"We grew everything in Sorrento," he fondly recalls. Instead of bread sauce, Yamada offers soft polenta and spunta - "the perfect potatoes for gnocchi".
Although Yamada's brigade of seven chefs are predominantly Italian, pastry chef Asako Shirasaki is also Japanese. "I spotted her at Skylon earlier in the year," says Yamada. Her tarts of homely damson and alert lemon proved an exercise in precision, the latter looked scalpel-cut.
Where possible, Yamada uses British produce garnered from suppliers including Aqua Fish, Maren Meats and Yorkshire Game, although Gastronomica provides twice-weekly air drops of Puglian burrata for carciuffi (artichoke) marinade (£12.25).
The concise wine list, mostly supplied by Liberty, shuns boutique brands. Indeed, a vital glass of Valpolicella, which cleansed the tortelli, cost just £3.75 (£18.50 per bottle).
Yamada regularly visits Italy, although on account of young daughters, Mia and Hanna, he jokes it would have been better "to go to the beach rather than the centre of Florence" for the last family holiday.
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
Insalata di Polpo: seared octopus, parsley, pomegranate, apple, £3.75
â- Sardine alla griglia: grilled sardines, gremolata, £7.75
â- Cervo: venison, pickled summer vegetables, £10.75
â- Brasato di Maial: pork belly, olive oil mash, girolles, £18
â- Arrosto di Agnello: roasted lamb rump, fresh borlotti, anchovy, tomato, parsley, £26.75
â- Costata di Manzo "per due": roast Scottish rib eye, bone barrow, spunta, kale, £56.75
â- Dark chocolate fondant, vanilla ice-cream, £6.75
â- Peach and elderflower jelly, mascarpone, £7
â- Gooseberry, hazelnut, ricotta semi-freddo, £7.50