Two years ago Adam Byatt moved his highly successful Clapham restaurant into the West End, and almost at once things started going wrong. But he survived the trauma of receivership, rebranded the business and is now opening a new restaurant - back in Clapham. Joanna Wood went to meet him
There's a neat symmetry to Adam Byatt's life. After a torrid two years steering his restaurant, Origin (in Covent Garden's the Hospital member's club and media complex), through some very choppy waters, he's back in Clapham. Back in the kitchen, what's more, and launching a new restaurant, Trinity, on the edge of Clapham Common's leafy suburbia in south London.
That he's relieved to be here is pretty apparent as soon as we begin to chat - more of that in a minute. That he's knackered, too, is blindingly obvious. He's grey about the gills from doing back-to-back services, he has huge shadows under his eyes and a dirty great rent in his whites under the left arm. Yet there's no doubting the aura of contentment hanging about him. "It just feels right to be here," he admits with a cautious smile.
It's not surprising that he's wary, given the recent journey he has been on. That journey began just over four years ago in Clapham, of course, when Byatt and his then business partner, fellow chef Adam Oates, launched a restaurant called Thyme. The restaurant proved such a runaway success that it bagged the duo the opportunity of moving it into the West End in 2004.
There was a huge amount of hype surrounding the opening of Thyme in Covent Garden, but things didn't go according to the move-restaurant/get-great-reviews/earn-lots-of-money/win-awards script. Critics were less than enamoured about the design and formality of the new Thyme, for one thing. And the food wasn't universally acclaimed, although the Observer's Jay Rayner didn't lay into it with the same venom as some reviewers.
However, once mud has been flung, it sticks - and diners did not come through the doors of the Covent Garden Thyme in the numbers that had been hoped for. The upshot was that, less than a year after the relocation, the restaurant went into receivership. It then relaunched under a new name, Origin, with a softened tone and less tricksy food. Byatt stayed on board as a director and executive chef to try to salvage things, but Oates called it a day and moved out of the industry altogether.
The fact that Byatt is sitting in front of me today, still a sane man with a bright future as a chef-restaurateur, is proof that the salvage plan at the Hospital has worked - and that he's a man of enormous character. But that doesn't mean to say he doesn't bear any scars. "The whole experience was just awful - the most disturbing thing that has ever happened to me. I've still got a huge debt hanging over me which will probably take 10 years to pay off," he says candidly. "The worst thing of all was having to sack everybody when we went into liquidation - I lost my shirt, nearly lost my house and pissed on about 16 years of building up my career."
Many observers have wondered whether or not Thyme's leap from a perfectly formed, 50-seat neighbourhood restaurant to a 76-seat West End operation that was only one component of a huge F&B business at the Hospital was wise. Yet Byatt is insistent that Thyme's move to Covent Garden was logical and needn't have been so disastrous. "We were on a roll and needed to take the next step. It was do-able - I absolutely believe that. But the problem was we were undercapitalised - there were phenomenal problems with getting the building sorted - and it's the kind of site that takes two years to settle in." His voice trails off, but the meaning is plain. With no financial safety net to cushion a rocky first year, Thyme didn't stand much of a chance.
Philip Howard, at whose two-Michelin-starred Square restaurant Byatt polished his classical craft prior to the Thyme venture, agrees with his protégé's assessment. "They could do no more with the space at Clapham and I'm not surprised that they took the bait. The problem when you attempt to be a tip-top restaurant, have your own bespoke china made and so on, is that you have to have a product to support that across the board. And Thyme at the Hospital didn't quite get there."
Perversely, however, the Covent Garden debacle has probably made Byatt a better chef-restaurateur, which will stand him in good stead at Trinity. "There are no two ways about it: you learn an awful lot more through failure than through success," Howard says.
And one of the primary lessons Byatt has learnt is that it's better to open a restaurant quietly. There has been no massive press coverage of Trinity's launch and, to date, no huge PR push to get critics through the doors. That's in stark contrast to the opening of Thyme in the West End: "We had 20 journalists in the restaurant in the first 10 days," recalls Byatt with horror. He would prefer for Trinity to be discovered rather than have its arrival trumpeted under an unremitting media spotlight. "I want people to be blown away when they don't expect it. I want to over-deliver."
So what is there to discover? Well, an elegant, friendly neighbourhood restaurant with cream and milk-chocolate walls, dark wood flooring, a large window frontage that lets the winter sunlight stream in during daytime (great for putting diners in a good mood) and, best of all, some lovely food served on sophisticated, white crockery. The dining room isn't over-large, but with space for 60 its capacity, tellingly, falls between the 50 of the original Thyme and the nearly 80-odd of Origin. It's a number that allows the restaurant to retain a personal touch and a relaxed waiting service.
Incorporated into the dining room is a zinc bar, plus an area with a table that can seat up to 16 adjoining a window that looks in to the kitchen. Byatt and his new business partner, restaurateur Angus Jones (one of the original founders of Smith's of Smithfield), plan to use this area as a private dining space. Because of the direct contact with the kitchen, it also has potential as an area in which Byatt can hold masterclasses. "The idea is to hold them on a walk-in basis for a fixed fee - people will come in, have lunch, 50 minutes tuition and a glass of Champagne," he explains.
The food is recognisably Byatt: classical dishes with a modern sensibility and seasonal tips-of-the-hat. Among the offerings are trademark creations such as a robustly-flavoured braised rabbit lasagne that comes with broad beans, roast onions and black truffle (a dish which has obvious allusions to the Square); and a ravioli of lobster in a lemon grass broth served with wilted pak choi. "There's definitely something from the Square in my dishes - I pair things really classically, that's Phil's influence, but I present like me, like Adam Byatt," he nods.
He's right about the presentation. A dish of caramelised breast of duckling with Jerusalem artichoke purée and crisps, a smattering of baby artichokes and a delicate slab of hot roast foie gras is far more impressionistic in its visual patterning than the sparing presentation that is the hallmark of Howard's dishes. It leans more towards the style of Tom Aikens, but it tones down the flamboyance.
Other identifiable Byatt-isms include a fondness for a bit of surf'n'turf: glazed belly of rare-breed pork served with a black olive mash, vinaigrette of cockles and saffron, being one example on the opening menu. Wisely, although there is a conventional three-course à la carte menu, Byatt is also putting out a tasting menu with optional wine matchings. It's the style of menu with which he made his name at Thyme at the original Clapham site - and one he temporarily jettisoned when Thyme opened at Covent Garden, only to reinstate when it became clear that there needed to be more of a continuum between the two incarnations than just the restaurant name.
Crucially, Trinity's food is competitively priced. The tasting menu is a steal, whether at £35 for five courses for the food alone, or £55 with matched wines. The à la carte starters range between £6 and a top-price £11 for a dish of hand-dived scallops with shrimps, baby leeks, cauliflower and winter truffles, while mains are between £14 and £20 (the latter for fillet of Anglian beef, hung for 32 days for Byatt by local Clapham butcher, Murray's) and desserts between £7 and £10. Moreover, there's a fixed-price lunch menu at £12 (two courses) and £18 (three courses).
Desserts, incidentally, have been devised for Trinity in conjunction with consultant pastry chef Damian Allsop, who worked for Byatt at the Hospital. As with the main menus, the dishes are more reined in, in comparison to the Thyme's offering at Covent Garden, with classics such as a lovely tarte tatin made big enough for two people to share and served with prune and Armagnac ripple ice-cream available alongside dishes with classical flavour pairings and modernistic touches - such as port-roast figs with mascarpone ice-cream, anise doughnuts and chestnut. "I gave Damien a very clear brief - I wanted something, like the tatin, that could stay on the menu for ever, plus a cream dessert, a poached dessert and five ice-creams," Byatt says.
"Personally," Howard confides, "I think Adam is one of the great talents of London but he hasn't had the stability or continuity to grow and develop into the kind of chef that he can become. He's a naturally very gifted guy and has fantastic classical training. Yet he's young enough to have a desire to play with the new wizardry. His food is fun. It's modern and completely up-to-date. He deserves real success."
The food, the restaurant's decor (designed by Point Three), the pricing policy, the location (on the site of the old Polygon restaurant and bar, incidentally) are all adding up to a restaurant that has a very logical life-line back to the Clapham Thyme. Now, all that Byatt needs is a bit of luck to go with the hard work he has already put in at Trinity in order to complete his rehabilitation as a chef-restaurateur to be reckoned with.
The opening tasting menu
Lime-cured sea bass, pomegranate, balsamic and radish salad with crab mayonnaise (Domaine Grassa, Côtes de Gascogne, 2005)
Pot-roast quail, hazelnut gnocchi, cooking juices and sage (Alpha Zeta, Chardonnay, 2005)
Ravioli of lobster, lemon grass broth, soy wilted pak choi (Keteka Chenin/Colombard 2005)
Glazed belly of rare-breed pork, black olive mash, vinaigrette of cockles and saffron (Château de Panery, Côtes du Rhône,
Madagascan chocolate soufflé with mint chocolate chip ice-cream (Les Clos des Paulilles, Banuls, 2003)
On the failure of Thyme at the Hospital
"I felt like I'd chucked five years of my life in to a washing machine which had ripped everything to shreds."
On parting company with fellow chef and business partner Adam Oates
"When Adam decided to move on, that left a huge hole in my life. We'd been working alongside each other for years. We were like brothers."
On his cooking style
"I learnt to cook at Claridge's but I became a chef at the Square."
On the launch of Trinity
"I will cook here for a few years and then hand it over to Rob Rathbone, my head chef, who has been with me through Thyme and Origin. That's where I see myself going - setting up restaurants and handing them on to young chefs who've come through my teams while I take a more executive role. I know where I'm going now."