Holm boys: why the crew from Brixton's Salon has moved to Somerset

08 December 2021 by

The London-based trio of Nicholas Balfe, Mark Gurney and Matt Bushnell have taken their urban, hip restaurant style and transplanted it to the Somerset countryside in the form of restaurant with rooms Holm. Andy Lynes reports

The idyllic, peaceful Somerset town of South Petherton, population 4,500, is not the most obvious location for an outpost of a London-based group of hip restaurants specialising in eclectic modern European food, natural and biodynamic wines and a carefully curated programme of music.

But if a packed, buzzy dining room on a Thursday night in November during the first week of Holm's full opening is anything to go by, business partners Nicholas Balfe (chef), Mark Gurney (front of house/HR, drinks and operations) and Matt Bushnell (director of finance) have made a smart addition to their mini-empire, which also includes the highly acclaimed Salon in Brixton (originally launched in 2012 by Balfe as a pop-up) and the neighbouring Salon Wine Store as well as Levan and Larry's in Peckham.

The location begins to make more sense when you realise it's midway between Yeovil and Taunton and about 30 minutes from the fashionable town of Bruton, named the "new Notting Hill" by Vogue due to the concentration of celebrity-owned second homes. They have been drawn there partly by restaurants including Roth Bar & Grill, At The Chapel and the Michelin-starred Osip run by Merlin Labron-Johnson, formerly of Portland in London.

"Bruton and north Somerset may be a bit trendier, but around here there's a growing scene of good places bubbling away. There's demand for it; it's the same types of people and demographic mix and they want interesting places to go to. A few people have said, "Now I don't have to drive to Bruton any more", says Balfe, who grew up in the region and has recently relocated from London with his family to Somerset.

"Running restaurants in London is amazing. It's so cosmopolitan, so much energy and the dining scene is just incredible, but here there are different things to get excited about. What appealed to all of us about this area was that idea of being quite locally focused. In London we can buy anything at any time, but inevitably we use Italian bitter leaves or French salsify. But here, the guy who grows our treviso radicchio physically comes to the restaurant and drops them off."

Montgomery Cheddar beignets and cuttlefish skewers with beef fat, elderflower and ink
Montgomery Cheddar beignets and cuttlefish skewers with beef fat, elderflower and ink

Branching out

Holm, named after a type of oak tree indigenous to the area, is part of Balfe, Bushnell and Gurney's company, Elder Restaurant, set up with help from outside investors. It also wholly owns Levan and Larry's (Salon and Salon Wine Store has a separate operating company, Salon Store and Dining).

The restaurant at Holm occupies a former NatWest Bank building with a quarter of an acre of grounds owned by wine importer Guy Anderson, with whom Bushnell says they have a very good relationship. "He's owned the building for a very long time and has put a lot of his time and energy into transforming it, getting it into a shell state for us that's suitable for occupation as a restaurant. Had we had to do the full works, it would have been impossible and entirely unsustainable for a business like ours," says Bushnell who estimates their investment in the restaurant so far to be about £700,000.

"He's been very generous in installing things like the floor and underfloor heating and fireplaces, and provided some of the toilet services and other bits and pieces. But when you take over a building that's this size, there's unexpected costs. We've been fortunate that the group does have some retained earnings, because you get to the point where you're so far committed you can't not put up a wall."

Taste of Somerset

It's their biggest project to date, Gurney tells me as he tours me around the property, starting at the six-seat counter overlooking the large open kitchen. Here Balfe and his team prepare a regularly changing chef's tasting menu of 10 dishes (£55) that might include Maitake mushrooms with dashi custard and pangrattato, as well as a vegetarian tasting menu (£55), à la carte (starters £8-£12, mains £16.50-£19.50, desserts £8.50) and set lunch menus (£25). The adjacent ‘snug' area is designed for casual drinking and eating and for pre- and post-meal drinks and features comfortable chairs and a wood-burning stove.

It leads into the 30-cover main dining room (there is currently a curtained off area which contains the still-active bank ATM. Once removed, Gurney says there will be room for another a table of eight) with its bare plaster walls, sage green banquet seating, wooden tables and chairs and another fireplace with woodburning stove.

Snack selection, including smoked eel, beetroot, horseradish; Westcombe cheddar fries and pickled walnut; and mallard liver parfait on brioche
Snack selection, including smoked eel, beetroot, horseradish; Westcombe cheddar fries and pickled walnut; and mallard liver parfait on brioche

What was the bank's vault has been converted into a wine store with stylish, handmade wooden shelves by Rib Joinery. Wood is also a feature of the 8-10 cover private dining room with a solid English oak table made by Pacha Design in Cornwall. The room also features a sounds system, where guests can choose a soundtrack for their meal from a collection of vinyl records (Gurney formerly worked in the music industry and music plays a big part in all of the company's restaurants).

Outside, work is progressing on a 60-cover umbrella-covered sun trap terrace, serviced by an outdoor grill, kitchen and bar in a converted outbuilding. Beyond will be a landscaped garden complete with kitchen garden and sustainable eco-pods occupied by local, artisanal businesses. And once planning permission has been received and additional funding secured, work will start on seven rooms upstairs, which are planned for April 2022.

"There's not a lot of accommodation around here, Airbnb is not very strong and there aren't that many hotels, so the rooms are a key factor in getting people down from London and making it a destination restaurant," says Gurney.

Although the trio already have some diversity within their portfolio of businesses, rooms will present a new challenge, and it's one that Balfe says they are not taking lightly.

"We're not underestimating it by any stretch. It's going to be a big leap for us and we're probably going to need some support from somewhere, a consultant or a manager who's done it before. Lots of our friends have opened rooms in the past few years, so we're tapping everyone up for hot tips and what not to do. I think it's going to be a really important part of the business to invest our time and energy.

Mussels cooked in Burrow Hill cider, leeks from Pitney Farm and a broth of mussel stock, kombu and crème fraîche
Mussels cooked in Burrow Hill cider, leeks from Pitney Farm and a broth of mussel stock, kombu and crème fraîche

"Our aspirations are quite high for Holm; our aspirations in London are very high as well, but I think because it's a new opening and it's a relatively impressive site with quite a lot going on. It will really set us in that destination category if we manage it well, so we're very excited about it."

Relocation, relocation, relocation

Holm also faces the trio with the new challenge of managing businesses both in and outside of London for the first time. Gurney says that he and Bushnell will travel down to Somerset about every two weeks, with Balfe visiting London as frequently. They've taken time to prepare for the change, having learned a hard lesson from opening their second restaurant, Levan, in October 2018.

"We've definitely learned along the way that it's not always easy to do," says Gurney. "When we opened Levan we said to the Salon team, ‘Right guys, we're going to Peckham, you'll be fine, you're brilliant'. However, things went a bit awry and we ended up spending time trying to fix the problems.

"That really taught us a key lesson: to spend time putting in a lot of effort to make sure everyone's in a good place, that our systems were correct and our finances were correct and the team had real ownership and empowerment to take on the responsibility they felt they could do."

Balfe, Bushnell and Gurney employ 69 people at Holm, a significant increase from the early days of Salon, when Bushnell estimates the team totalled around 10. While the company is keen to keep expanding, Bushnell says the rooms at Holm will give them enough to be getting on with in the short term and, due partly to the challenges set by Covid, the existing businesses need some time to bed in.

"Covid has probably had the biggest impact on Larry's. Its model was to target the thousands of commuters passing each morning for coffees and again each evening for dinner, cocktails, beers and wine. With commuter traffic pretty much gone, we're having to reinvent ourselves and work out how to make it the success it should be," says Bushnell.

Treacle tart
Treacle tart

"But we're always open to new opportunities, both in and out of London. Our senior team are ambitious and we're always looking to help promote and grow from within our teams. Ultimately, we hope this will result in us helping some of them open their own sites within the group. It'll be great for both parties. Helping them achieve their visions of their own sites and also allowing us to invest in new projects with people we are confident can run a great restaurant."

Having taken on a 25-year lease and relocating to Somerset, Balfe describes Holm as ‘a project for life' and one that is laying down roots for the business with tentative plans for a larger market garden to supply the restaurant nearby.

"We're not going anywhere. It's not about building a group and selling it – it's just not that kind of restaurant. We're coming up to 10 years of Salon relatively soon, and at one point we probably would have thought at 10 years we'll probably call it a day, but I don't see any reason why we would. So hopefully we'll still be at Salon in another 10 years, and in 25 years we'll hopefully be looking forward to the next 25 here."

What the critics say

Salon

"More and more in the restaurant world there's a sweet spot between formal and informal dining, where the food is first-rate but the setting is casual, and Salon in Brixton is practically the perfect example of this style. Downstairs is a bar, upstairs an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs at work. The staff are casually dressed and bring the same informality to their attitude, but in a good way; the atmosphere is so friendly and down-to-earth you feel like you're stopping by a friend's house for dinner."

House and Garden magazine

Levan

"The team behind Levan – chef Nicholas Balfe and his front of house partners Mark Gurney and Matt Bushnell – are engineers of the new wave of highly relaxed yet incredibly drilled hospitality. At Levan, you can expect a list of wholly enticing potential deliciousness."

The Guardian

Larry's

"The service was flawless. Wine was topped up before we'd even noticed it was getting empty and the dishes replenished with something new once we had eaten every last crumb from the previous plate. The staff were on the right side of chatty, attentive and professional which made the whole evening feel seamless and calm and we can't wait to go again."

Time Out

Holm

"It's all about seasonality, sustainability and provenance here, with most of the ingredients being super local and even foraged. And to prove it, there was a huge puffball mushroom in the kitchen, found earlier that day by Somerset's Happy Forager, waiting ready to be turned into something delicious a hundred different ways. Anyone who values feeling a connection between what they're eating and the land from which it comes will want to make a beeline here."

Muddy Stilettos

Meet the team

Pictured from left:

Matt Bushnell

Bushnell worked as a management consultant before becoming part of the team that opened the 8 Hoxton Square and Oklava restaurants. Since joining Salon, Bushnell's role has been particularly focused on the financials, project management and operational management.

Mark Gurney

Gurney worked in the music industry as a music consultant and label manager before moving into hospitality. After working for Angela Hartnett for three years, he moved to Salon as a director, where he looks after drinks and HR for the group.

Nicholas Balfe

Before opening Salon in 2012, Balfe was head chef at Brunswick House in Vauxhall, sous chef at Frank's Cafe and Campari Bar in Peckham and chef de partie for the Young Turks at The ten Bells in Spitalfields.

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