A self-confessed weakness for the restaurant business has seen 60-year-old Hugh O'Neill - aka Lord Rathcavan - slide into the driving seat of a Knightsbridge restaurant once again.
It's a seat he knows intimately. He used to own this particular restaurant - in partnership with the late food writer and gastronome Quentin Crewe. Now, at a stage in life when most people start taking things easy, O'Neill has drummed up the cash, negotiated a deal, found the staff, done some interior design and opened for business at the Brasserie St Quentin.
Just weeks into trading, he regrets nothing. He says he is "thrilled" with how things are going - on a Thursday lunchtime all but a handful of tables were taken. He is "just about on budget" and is enjoying seeing familiar faces come through the door.
Indeed, sitting at a well positioned table, he notes every coming and going, bobbing up and down to greet friends and acquaintances. The Duchess of Westminster and friends are a bit late for their 1.45pm reservation, but no matter; he's anxious that a regular customer and her son be moved to a better table, but they're perfectly happy, thank you; he jokes with Quentin Crewe's former driver, who has come for lunch with friends; and he accepts with grace the compliments of another guest, a regular when O'Neill was previously in charge, who is glad to see him back at the helm.
O'Neill is no stranger to success. When he and Crewe first bought the Brompton Grill and turned it into the Brasserie St Quentin in 1980, it quickly attracted a well-heeled Knightsbridge following and, as he recalled in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph, "we were full with grandees every night".
But it had been a gamble. "We dived in, eyes closed. Quentin [the restaurant was named after him] had a background in the restaurant business but we still learnt the hard way," he says.
Almost a decade and a few spin-offs such as a pâtisserie and café later, O'Neill sold up to the Savoy. "That was the biggest mistake of my life," he says, "but I had been persuaded to get involved in a textile business, which turned out to be a case of putting good money after bad." Meanwhile, the Savoy closed the spin-offs and ran the brasserie under the same name until the mid-1990s before selling to Groupe Chez Gérard.
A combination of events last year conspired to propel O'Neill back into the business he loved. "I was in the House of Lords in the 1990s as a full-time working peer," he explains. "I was an independent on the cross-benches, and after the reform of the House I didn't get elected back in, so I needed a new challenge. As I still had my weakness for the restaurant business, I decided to team up with a chef friend and get back into the industry."
O'Neill was gazumped on a number of projects before the original Brasserie St Quentin came up. Chez Gérard was keen to unload its non-core brands, but the two sides were way apart on price until the events of 11 September brought restaurant prices down. By December 2001 O'Neill and Chez G‚rard were negotiating again. The deal was completed on 22 February, and the restaurant opened on 11 March.
O'Neill - who went to friends rather than banks to raise the £250,000 needed for the leasehold - pumped £20,000 into sprucing up the dining room. "It wasn't a case of gutting the place at all," he says, indicating the ornate chandeliers and the etched pink-tinted mirrors that date from the Brompton Grill days. "We bought all the tableware and kitchen equipment from Chez Gérard but chose new cutlery and glassware and put white linen back on the tables. We had the banquettes resprung, the loos needed a makeover, and we redid the private room downstairs."
Although O'Neill has been away from the cutting edge of the restaurant world for several years, he remained active in the tourism sector during the 1990s as chair of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and founder of Taste of Ulster - and he clearly followed industry trends closely. He hopes that his reinvention of the Brasserie St Quentin will appeal to current eating habits with its varied menu that combines hearty brasserie fare and lighter meals. He is also looking for a niche as a neighbourhood restaurant. Indeed, a glance round the dining room is enough to confirm that it is the well-to-do residents of SW3, or at least the area's well-to-do shoppers, that appear to make up the brasserie's core market.
He hopes above all, however, to provide quality and value for money. Starters at the restaurant are priced from £4.20 and main courses from £8.20, thus spend averages £30 a head including service and wine. There's also a set lunch for £11.75 for two courses, £14.50 for three. O'Neill says: "All my London friends feel that [the cost of] eating out in London has hit the pain threshold. If you're spending £100-£120 for dinner for two, you don't do it comfortably two or three times a week; but if you can eat for £50 for two, you feel better about going out more often. I'm not pretending to be a bargain-basement place - it's about value for money."
So how does he achieve this without ruining his bottom line? O'Neill defers to head chef Nana Yaw Nitri-Akuffo, formerly number two to Anton Edelmann at the Savoy and head chef at London nightclub Tramp. He seems unable to heap enough praise on Akuffo, describing him in the Telegraph as "a master of pricing, stock control, gross profit margins and payroll costs" quite apart from the fact that he's a good cook. "I'd say he's the best chef I've ever had and he also has a wonderful temperament, he's a very good leader and a very good housekeeper. Terrific," he says.
Akuffo's abilities have already been put to the test to create a menu (see panel) that fits with O'Neill's desire to offer value for money as well as good brasserie food: "Nana has developed a menu that works as a production process with the right balance between dishes that are expensive and less expensive to produce. There isn't much cost in the tomato tart [with rocket salad and Parmesan] but if everyone ate Dover sole and steak you'd be ruined, because you can't make the mark-ups on dishes like those, especially fish."
243 Brompton Road, London SW3 2ED
Tel: 020 7589 8005
Owner: Hugh O'Neill
General manager: Salvatore Ferrone
Head chef: Nana Yaw Nitri-Akuffo
Staff: 10 front of house; seven in the kitchen
Seats: 70, plus 25 in the private dining room
Covers: lunch: 50; dinner: 70
Average spend per head, including wine and service: £30
O'Neill's Ghanaian head chef, Nana Yaw Nitri-Akuffo, is a key component of the Brasserie St Quentin.
The pair share close links with Anton Edelmann, of Savoy fame, Edelmann being a friend of O'Neill's and mentor to Akuffo, who worked under the master chef for eight years, ultimately becoming his number two. Eager for a fresh challenge, he took his culinary and managerial skills to Mayfair nightclub Tramp, where he boosted food turnover from £2,000 to £15,000 in just two years.
Now, he is managing a seven-strong brigade that's serving about 45 lunches and 80 dinners seven days a week. He's worked with O'Neill to create a brasserie-style menu which, while it has obvious French influences, is "less French than we used to be" according to O'Neill.
Among the most popular starters are the much-praised feuillété d'escargots à la crème d'ail (£6.50); the classic warm salad of leeks with vinaigrette (£4.20); and seasonal dishes such as English asparagus with summer truffles (£7.50).
Main courses are a similar mix of brasserie essentials - sweetbreads, calves' liver and Dover sole all feature. The slow-roasted spring lamb with its confit and sauce smitane (£13.95) has become a best seller, says Akuffo, and he's amazed at the number of Dover sole he turns out, despite its £22 price tag. "We take a couple of dishes out every month, but something like the Dover sole or the lamb or the snails just can't come off now," he adds.
The wine list has been put together by supplier Lea & Sandeman to offer 35 wines at less than £20 a bottle, 15 under £15, and some for just £3 a glass.
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