The chef is making the veg the star at his new site – just don’t call it a vegetarian restaurant, says Katherine Price
“Some people ask me if I wrote the book to go with the restaurant,” laughs chef
Bryn Williams, referring to his book For the Love of Veg. He published it in 2015 – well ahead of the plant-based trend that is currently so ubiquitous – and to open a restaurant focusing on fruit and vegetables now could not have been more well-timed.
“I’ve always had that interest in fruit and vegetables,” he says. “It came from being brought up in a farming community. We haven’t reinvented the wheel here. It’s just a different way of looking at food.”
Earlier this year it was announced that Welsh chef Williams would open his second London restaurant in Somerset House’s south wing – the space that was formerly Tom’s Kitchen – and that it would be a “veg-centric” concept. A quarter of a million pounds was spent refurbishing the space and, on 1 March, the feast day of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, Bryn Williams at Somerset House opened in the middle of a snowstorm. The restaurant joins Williams’s other London restaurant, Odette’s in Primrose Hill, and his eponymous Porth Eirias outpost.
The dishes on the menu prioritise fruit and vegetables, for example: ‘Field mushroom, confit shallots, rib-eye steak and triple-cooked chips’. Williams explains: “All the work has gone into the veg, so that’s why it’s on the menu first and we keep the meat and the fish very simple. If we’re going to talk about fruit and veg as the main star of the show, that has to be reflected on the menu. It’s a good talking point, but we have to back it up.”
He reckons they sell 20% more cauliflower ‘steaks’ than rib-eyes and that the dish is already the clear best-seller. “It’s a play on cauliflower cheese and it’s become a signature of the restaurant. When we change the menu we’ll just keep evolving it,” he says.
The kitchen gets two portions from one cauliflower head, which is steamed and dried in the oven, and then roasted and basted like a steak in a hot pan with butter – it’s even left to rest. The excess cauliflower pieces are sweated and blended with cream and butter to make a purée. Capers, golden raisins and salted grapes are then arranged on top of the cauliflower, which is dressed with curry and herb oils and served with cheesy polenta.
“Ironically, you have to have a softer touch with cauliflower than steak because if you cook it too hard and too fast it breaks apart,” he says.
The food is recognisably Williams: modern British using seasonal ingredients cooked with the French techniques he learned in his Le Gavroche and Restaurant Marco Pierre White days, just with a different focus.
“We are not a vegetarian restaurant,” he insists. “We serve quite a lot of vegetarian food but there’s no difference in dedication, quality, skill level or attention to detail in the dishes – it’s just the focus.”
Some days 70% of the dishes they sell will be vegetarian, but the people ordering them will not always be vegetarians: “they just want something a bit different, a bit lighter”.
Around half of the restaurant’s custom is from the 2,500 people working in Somerset House, with major exhibitions noticeably impacting footfall. The 75-cover restaurant is currently doing around 60-70 covers for lunch and 70-80 for dinner.
Like many operators, Williams saw an arts centre as a safer option than the high
street. “If you’re on the high street, you’re relying on footfall, locals and regulars,” he says.
“It’s about not putting all your eggs in one basket – especially not in the climate we’re in. “It’s easy to say that now – this was signed off 18 months ago. When we agreed it, what has happened since Christmas wasn’t a factor… but it’s not about what’s in the till – it’s about making sure the business is secure and strong, so when you’re employing people you can invest in them. There’s no such thing as a flash in the pan in business. We’re here for the long-term.”
Two months on, Williams is starting to step back to allow head chef Richard Robinson to take the reins, but he is adamant that there are no more restaurants in the pipeline – even if his customers keep nagging him to open a vegetarian one. “I’ve no plans to open a vegetarian restaurant – I’ve got enough on my hands!”
From the menu
• Pea and mint soup, mint crème fraîche, lemon, pea tops £7.25
• Compressed watermelon, avocado, Dorset crab, sea vegetables £11.25
• Wye Valley asparagus, brown butter, smoked rosemary £9.50
• Roast cauliflower, golden raisins, capers, soft polenta, salted grapes £16
• Field mushroom, confit shallots, rib-eye steak, triple-cooked chips £26
• Kale pesto, hand-cut tagliatelle, Parmesan £15
• Lavender meringue, lemon posset, lavender tblueberry ice-cream £7
• Passion fruit, banana and pineapple with baked vanilla cheesecake £8
Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN