Sexy Fish marks Caprice Holdings' first new restaurant concept in four years and, as with all of owner Richard Caring's passion projects, customers are already salivating over its anticipated glamour. Tom Vaughan met the team just before the launch.
Damien Hirst and Frank Gehry artwork; a striking, specially commissioned fabric ceiling; wall-to-wall fish tanks in the private dining room; polished onyx and lava stone - even the Mayfair regulars are purring: "There's an incredible energy within Caprice Holdings about Sexy Fish," says Paul Murashe, the site's new restaurant director, lured from swanky neighbour Nobu Berkeley. "The concepts going into this restaurant, I've never seen before."
At the helm for what is set to become one of London's biggest openings this year is Murashe, executive chef Ben Orpwood and Caprice Holdings operations director Laura Montana. It's T-minus 20 days to launch (set for 19 October) and we're sat in one of designer Martin Brudnizki's red leather booths amid a sea of builders and staff training breakouts, talking about the origins of a restaurant Montana has previously described as "close to Richard [Caring's] heart".
"It's been two years in the making," she says. "As a group we wanted to explore something different and do something special along the Asian route. All ideas came to the table and it has been a long process to get to where we are now."
Making a splash
Caring picked up the prestigious site - located in a former NatWest bank on the corner of Berkeley Square and across the road from the group's private members' club Annabel's - in May last year. And while Caprice is reluctant to "talk money", it's safe to say that Sexy Fish represents a meaty investment, especially when you factor in the artwork and the fish tanks - the glass for which took two weeks to lower into the basement.
Not to mention the raw materials that went into Brudnizki's mid-century inspired interiors - polished nickel, an onyx staircase, lava stone bar counters and a 3.5m Art Deco -inspired crustacean display. But with 190 covers, Sexy Fish also represents by far the largest space among Caprice's 16-strong UK portfolio, and an opportunity to make one hell of a splash on the capital's dining scene.
Amid huge expectations, hundreds of column inches and a reputation for attracting celebrity A-listers, how on earth do you go about launching a Caprice Holdings restaurant? "You have to be military about your training programme. We've got two weeks with our staff and it's about attention to detail and getting them up to speed," says Montana. "From the way you pick up a glass - everyone will pick it up in the same way - to the way you lean over a table, all our staff will do it in exactly the same way. It's that attention to detail."
That's easier said than done when 95% of your 110 front-of-house staff are new recruits to the company. But "military" is definitely the best way to describe it. Dotted around the room are groups of 10 or so staff members being put through their paces. In one corner, a female trainer reels off questions about the menu with all the softly softly approach of a drill sergeant:
"Oysters: what with? Hands up!" she demands.
"Chopped shallots," comes one reply.
"Diced! Diced shallots!" she snaps back.
In another corner, a trainer steers staff around the nuances of waiting tables in this corner of London: "It's Mayfair! Everyone wants to know everything about the gossip."
Another test, which sadly I'm not there for, has waiters hurry through a mock busy service with a tray of drinks, stopping and looking composed at each table. And if that's not enough, Montana can spring out at any moment with a camera and snap a picture. To pass you have to be smiling.
"We can teach someone how to carry a plate, how to put a fork in the right place, how to read a menu. But you can't teach someone to be genuinely hospitable - to love looking after people and to take joy in it," says Montana. "That's what we're looking for in our staff - hospitality."
The result is Caprice's famous levels of service, the standard of which has customers coming back time and again to the company's glamorous haunts. "That level of detail. That's what Caprice is. We want you to leave here feeling like a million dollars," says Montana.
All at sea
Then, of course, there is the food. Sexy Fish is the group's first proper foray away from British cuisine, with Orpwood's menu drawing on Asian influences across a menu that is 80% seafood. "The brief was that we wanted to make sure we were as open to as many different styles of eating as possible, within reason, while having some staple dishes from within the group: prawn cocktail, smoked salmon," explains Orpwood. "When you try our shrimp cocktail you will recognise it, but you know it will be different."
With kimchee mayo instead of Marie Rose sauce, dehydrated and powdered shrimp heads instead of paprika and a light Asian dressing, it's the same, but different, says Orpwood. Likewise, the hot-smoked salmon: "I don't think there are any groups in London that do smoked salmon better than us," he says. For all of this, Orpwood has recruited a team of about 40 chefs, many happily handed over by Caprice's other London kitchens.
The likes of steaks from the US Department of Agriculture and Japan, plus langoustine, caviar and oysters from a stunning Art Deco seafood display, will doubtless drag up an average spend that Montana predicts will be around £55 at lunch and £85 at dinner. However, the more affordable options will mete this out: "We've worked hard to tailor the menu so there are different sections at different price points," says Orpwood. "There's lots of opportunities to have fun with the skewers and buns sections of the menu. We haven't copped out on cheaper options, but really thought them through and pushed them."
e result is a menu that hits big populist notes - from fish cooked over a robata grill (if Orpwood were a betting man he'd back the Chilean sea bass to become a signature dish) to sticky pork belly buns, buttermilk popcorn chicken with kimchee mayonnaise and sashimi platters. All of which - I should note - is a work in progress at the time of writing. "What people don't realise is that these two weeks before we open is like editing a film," says Montana. "We're editing the dishes; editing the service. Some dishes won't make it through - they'll end up on the cutting room floor, as will some styles of service. What you've got on paper to what you do training, then when you go live you are 80% there, but some of the things are just not going to work."
Once the service and food are in place, there then comes the small issue of launching a restaurant that is doubtless going to crop up in the gossip columns come opening time - however little the celebrity clientele truly makes up its customer numbers. The 200,000-strong Caprice customer database certainly buys a lot of clout in getting word out, and then there's a couple of rumours doing the rounds. One - a celebrity launch party - Montana is quick to deny (if not wholly convincingly) - indeed, Rita Ora, Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan were in attendance. The other - keyrings given out to extra-special clientele - she reluctantly confirms is true. Who qualifies for one? "The selection process was taken from the air. Names fell on the table," she jokes. "They were for loyal, regular customers. Not necessarily celebrities. It just has a different phone number on it. It was a bit of fun." What's the number? Richard Caring's mobile? "Ha! No. No-one has that!"
For Montana, Orpwood and Murashe, the latter of whom have worked for Zuma and Nobu respectively, the opportunity to launch Sexy Fish is a career high point. Is there pressure? "Yeah," says Orpwood, "Pressure not just on us, but on the waiters serving expensive steak. Even the KPs are under pressure not to break a plate. When there is a build and investment this big, the pressure is with everyone. At other big restaurant groups like Zuma, you are part of a chain, the rules have already been written. Here, we are writing the rules; laying the foundations for a spectacular restaurant."
Paul Murashe, restaurant director Born and raised in Sheffield, Murashe moved to London and began working at Rules in 1994. Periods in Sydney and Melbourne followed, before he joined Nobu London as maÁ®tre d'. Following another stint abroad, this time in New York, he returned to Nobu as general manager of the Berkeley Street branch, a position he held for 10 years before joining Caprice Holdings as restaurant director of Sexy Fish.
Ben Orpwood, executive chef After training in Cambridge, Orpwood's first job in London was as a commis chef at Zuma, Knightsbridge, in 2005, where he moved up the ranks to chef de partie. Periods with Zuma in Istanbul and Dubai followed, before he relocated to Sydney in 2010 and became sous chef at Toko restaurant in Surry Hills, before helping the same restaurant group expand into Dubai. In September 2014, he became acting group executive chef for the Sydney Collective Group, before returning to London as executive chef at Sexy Fish. His numerous travels through Asia and Australia, along with inspiration from his Burmese wife, has helped inform the restaurant's menu.
Laura Montana, operations director Tasked with overseeing the development of the group's restaurants, clubs and bars, Montana started her career with Caprice at the Ivy in 2002, quickly rising through the ranks to become restaurant manager in 2005. In 2007, she moved to New York as the assistant general manager of the Monkey Bar, before helping open Soho House West Hollywood as food and beverage director. Returning to the UK in 2009, she worked at Scott's while overseeing the project build for 34, which opened in November 2011.
Sexy Fish in numbers
160 table seats
30 bar seats
30 wines by the glass
300 wines by the bottle
32 Champagnes by the bottle
8 Champagne magnums
1 Methuselah Champagne (eight bottles)
130 bottles of Japanese whisky
1,000 cocktail garnishes per week
15,000 litres in the private dining room fish tanks
100 species of fish
6 days of the week that staff from the Aquatic Design Centre will tend to the fish
Damien Hirst has created three site-specific artworks for the restaurant: A pair of cast bronze mermaids, rendered in blue patina and positioned on either end of the bar (left), and a large bronze relief panel of a mermaid alongside a shark, in reference to Hirst's famous 1991 piece that featured a shark in formaldehyde.
Fish Lamps and Crocodile
Sexy Fish boasts the largest collection of architect Frank Gehry's Fish Lamps in one venue, with 20 in total. White, internally lit and about a metre each in length, they hang above the bar, imitating an undulating shoal. Elsewhere, a giant, four-metre-long glossy black silicone mosaic crocodile (right) is positioned as if crawling across the north wall of the dining room.
Sexy Fish is the first commercial commission undertaken by Michael Roberts, currently style editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, whose career spans photography, film, writing, drawing, painting and collage. His bold fabric ceiling mural is a striking addition to the site.