The opening of Texture in London has caused a stir among critics and industry insiders. The two co-proprietors both have spells at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons on their CVs, and several other members of staff have experience at this and other Michelin-starred restaurants. Joanna Wood finds out more
It's not often industry pundits are excited by the opening of a high-profile London restaurant headed by a couple of unproven restaurateurs. But earlier this month, critics and industry insiders alike sat up and took notice when Texture launched itself on the London dining scene.
Perched on a corner just off Portman Square, the 60-seat restaurant is ambitious, offering a menu veering towards the experimental, a 30-seat wine bar carrying nearly 90 bubblies and a 500-bin wine list - on their own, representing about £40,000-worth of investment. But the real reason why watchers are intrigued by this newcomer is because the two young restaurateurs at its helm, 32-year-old chef Agnar Sverrisson and sommelier Xavier Rousset, 28, have form. They've both done time at Raymond Blanc's renowned two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire - Sverrisson as head chef, Rousset as head sommelier.
In addition, Rousset is a master sommelier and former winner of the Ruinart Sommelier of the Year, while Sverrisson can brandish a CV listing spells at prestige Michelin-starred restaurants like Pétrus, Pied à Terre and Léa Linster's Luxembourg restaurant.
As if that wasn't enough for the pundits, their front-of-house and kitchen teams are spattered with ex-Le Manoir people, many of whom have also worked at other two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK and abroad. "They didn't come to us direct from Le Manoir, we didn't poach them," stresses Rousset. It made for a strength and depth at Texture that many experienced restaurateurs would envy and, importantly, gave Rousset and Sverrisson the comfort of knowing that they could hit the ground running from day one.
Which was just as well, because Texture had a visit from one of London's most influential food critics, the London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler, on the restaurant's second full evening service. Maschler is not easily pleased but she gave Texture a rating of four stars out of five. "We were really happy with that," says the Icelandic Sverrisson, with typical understatement.
His admirable low-key confidence is mirrored in Frenchman Rousset and their serene self-belief is the first thing that struck me when I met them in the week before Texture's launch. It's not cockiness, just a certainty about what they're doing and where they're going (clearly Michelin-wards). "They're a formidable team," comments Blanc, while Gerard Basset, an early mentor of Rousset's who gave the sommelier his first job in the UK at the Winchester Hotel du Vin, told me: "Yes, they're ambitious, but they're ready for it."
So what is it that makes them contenders? One of the most noticeable things about Texture is the equal billing given to food and wine: it's unusual because often, even when wine is integral to an operation, food ultimately holds sway. However, the restaurant's name personifies its intent by being a reference not only to the feel of food in the mouth, but also to the viscous nature of wine. This equality takes its most obvious form in the jaw-dropping selection of nearly 90 sparklers in the Champagne bar and the food and wine pairings on Texture's tasting menus. The most attention-grabbing of these is a fish-and-Champagne option, but more of that later.
The bar is not sponsored - on the face of it a brave move - but Rousset is an expert on the UK's favourite celebration wine and is convinced that it will prove a money-spinner. He has been to Champagne 10 times in five years and has forged many links with small, independent winemakers as well as the great Champagne houses.
"I've had producers queuing up to make me taste their Champagne," he says with a happy smile. Commendably, he's also carrying some sparkling wines from other regions and countries, including an increasingly rare first-vintage Nyetimber 1992, regarded by many as the West Sussex vineyard's best to date. "He's completely open-minded and has a very deep knowledge and passion for wine," confirms Blanc.
Champagne is a great match for much of Sverrisson's food. His cooking is light and balanced - he's a big fan of olive oil vinaigrettes - and while it's informed by classical training there's no doubt that he's steering it in a very modern way, experimenting with texture contrasts and modern techniques. A quintessential Sverrisson dish will take a central ingredient or garnish and treat it to different preparation methods. For instance, chargrilled Anjou pigeon comes with sweet corn and its drier cousin, popcorn. The latter has a further layer of texture in a dusting of bacon powder. "We dry the bacon out, powder it, sprinkle the popcorn then cook it," explains Sverrisson. The frying oil is also infused with bacon powder, which accounts for the heightened savoury hit you get on biting into the popcorn.
The attention to detail at Texture encompasses not only food but presentation, from the frequent use of black slates instead of conventional plates (not new in itself, admittedly) to clever serving details such as mini white toothpaste-esque tubes of extra sauce with some dishes - soy for a tuna dish with Asian overtones, coconut syrup to go with a coconut-centric dessert.
Then there are the bar snacks - crispy wafers of pig's skin - don't even think pork scratchings, they're far too delicate - potato and cod's skin, the latter slighty chewy and quite rough on the tongue, but with a pearly grey luminescence and a delicate fishy hit in the mouth. They come accompanied by what Sverrisson refers to as "tomato water": two test tubes of liquid, one red (a refreshing plum-tomato gazpacho with a hint of lemon grass), one clear (a real greenhouse essence of cherry tomatoes with the merest hint of a bitter kick derived from a fennel-led marinade). "We marinate the tomatoes for 12 hours then hang them in a thick apron. It has to be thick otherwise the colour isn't removed. An ordinary muslin won't work," says Sverrisson.
It's no surprise to learn that Sverrisson has checked out the Spanish boys - he's eaten at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli, done a two-week stage with Jordi Rocca - but he's adamant that he was already thinking out of the box before experiencing their cooking. Presumably, though, he brought back the "smoking gun" trick from Rocca as this is used cleverly with his Asian-nuanced tuna dish. It comes to the table under a cloche which is whipped away to release wisps of smoke laden with woody aroma. "I've absorbed influences from all the places I've worked," Sverrisson concedes, "even when I haven't agreed with some of the things I've seen. You can always learn and take away something to use in your own style, even the smallest technique."
There's another, more subtle, influence informing Sverrisson's cooking: his Icelandic roots. Think of Iceland and the food you conjure up is fish, so it's gratifying to see Sverrisson refer back to his childhood through Texture's fish tasting menu. The dishes are far more sophisticated and elegant than traditional Icelandic fare, but two-thirds of the fish he uses are caught in Icelandic waters. "The sea is so cold and clear, you definitely get better quality," he contends.
However, it's not only Icelandic fish that finds its way into Texture. Sverrisson is also using lamb from his homeland and the restaurant is hung with striking landscapes by Reykjavik-born artist Thorlákur Morthens (aka Tolli). Not only that, but the cool, elegant interior has been designed by Sverrisson's partner Tota Rafnsdottir. Emphasising the Icelandic connection may be a natural move for the Texture boys, but it also gives them a point of difference from their competitors - and is evidence of shrewd business acumen underpinning their expertise in their chosen fields.
Another sign of astuteness is their decision to serve smaller portions, all with an £8.50 price tag, on their lunch menu. But just don't mention the "tapas" word. I did and it produced a synchronised and vigorous shaking of heads. "We're not Spanish - we're doing smaller portions because people want a quick lunch and haven't time to eat a set menu any more. We're not just copying everybody else," insists Rousset.
We conclude the interview chatting about how they got their enterprise off the ground - and funding refurbishment cost of about £500,000. Reassuringly, they didn't put it together in a rush. It's taken two years to realise their vision and has had Blanc's encouragement from the early days. "We showed Raymond our business plan in May last year and he said ‘you're not there yet, but I'll help you all I can', then gave us a list of names of people to approach for backing," recalls Sverrisson.
Those backers comprise a number of Le Manoir regulars, city businessmen with deep pockets and good networks of potential customers. The conversation with Blanc took place a mere six months after the duo had hatched their plan, over dinner at Notting Hill's Ledbury restaurant. "It was the first time we'd talked together properly," laughs Rousset, "and we found out that we had the same vision, so we took it from there. Aggi's one of the most open-minded chefs I've ever come across. I can tell him I don't like a dish and he won't throw a knife at me."
They've already come a long way since that initial bonding and everything's in place for them to make their mark as restaurateurs. It's up to them to establish their reputation. "They'll succeed," says a confident Blanc.
• Texture, 34 Portman Square, London W1H 7BY. Tel 020 7224 0028 www.texture-restaurant.co.uk
Xavier Rousset's Top Bubblies for Small Restaurants
- Larmandier Bernier Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
- Egly Ouriet Vigne de Vrigny Premier Cru, Brut
- Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru, Extra Brut
- Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill
- Henriot Brut Souverain
- Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
- Ayala Rosé Majeur
- Gosset Grande Réserve
- Billecart Salmon Rosé
- Krug (all the range excluding the Rosé)
- Nyetimber 1996
- Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2002
- Moscato d'Asti, Bava
Fish tasting menu
£55 or £115 with Champagne and sparkling wine
Appetiser: Henriot Brut Souverain NV
Fresh, light - ideal to get the palate going at the beginning of a meal.
• Mediterranean tuna, smoked Asian flavours
Ruinart Rose NV
Enough depth for the dish's soy sauce and good balance of acidity to cut through the oily texture of the tuna.
• Scottish scallops, pan-fried cauliflower textures
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1996
Creamy, biscuity, smooth blanc de blanc showing maturity, which perfectly matches the cauliflower purée and nutty flavour of scallops.
• Pan-roasted Icelandic cod, avocado purée, chorizo, cocoa beans, sauce vierge
Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill 1996
Rich and full-flavoured from a great vintage. Strong enough to handle the spicy chorizo but very elegant still and doesn't overpower the cod.
• Parmesan powder
• Valrhona chocolate: ganache, cardamom ice-cream, fennel, extra-virgin olive oil
Moscato d'Asti, Bava, Piemonte, Italy 2005
Great semi-sparkling wine, very aromatic and amazingly refreshing to finish the meal. Muscat is a very versatile grape and works well with chocolate while at the same time softening the heat of the cardamom ice-cream.
Wine tasting notes by Xavier Rousset
The former boss
Raymond Blanc on Sverrisson and Rousset:
Aggi is an amazing, creative chef. He's a great listener and a great motivator of his team, very curious and hard-working, a real craftsman. He always wants to learn and is probably one of the most curious chefs that has ever worked for me. His food has a lightness of touch, a cleanness of flavour and I have no doubt that he'll make his own style at Texture - add his own personality to his food.
His only weakness in the past has been to be too close to his passion [food] and make the odd mistake, but he's learned to stand back from things when he has to and he's very much a finished article as a chef now.
Xavier has a deep knowledge and passion for wine and he's a good businessman. He's a born trainer, too, and completely open-minded. When he came to Le Manoir, he wanted to create a beer menu, which we did. He and Aggi compliment each other so well in restaurant terms. I know their partnership will stand the test of time.