Superficially, Simon Baynham appears every inch the property man. He doesn't appear to carry cash, preferring to pay for even a couple of coffees with a credit card and he reveals facts and figures with ease. 'The Howard de Walden Estate of which I am Property Director encompasses 1200 buildings, 2000 tenants, is the third biggest London estate by income and the fourth by acreage.'
But few property developers would gnash their teeth at the planning obstacles delaying Baynham's dream to instal The Ginger Pig, one of the UK's best value organic meat producers based in Yorkshire, next to the cheese heaven that is Patricia Michaelson's shop, The Cheese Room. Nor would many in his position have stuck their commercial neck out four years ago and backed New Zealand chef Peter Gordon, a man with a great culinary track record but at that stage no financial collateral, and allowed him to move into a converted pub, now the runaway success Providores.
Today, Baynham is in buoyant mood. The peruasion and arguments have worked and the plans necessary to convince the local council to allow their major car park to be used for a Sunday Farmers Market have been approved - on Sunday 22 June what he has been told will be London's biggest Farmers' Market with 22 different stalls will finally open for business.
But as Baynham walks down the bustling food highway that is today's Marylebone High Street he does reveal that he is a worried man - where will he find the right people to run a top-quality fruit and vegetable store, the missing piece in his property/food jigsaw?
This has been a puzzle Baynham has been confronting for the past eight years ever since he took responsibility for this High Street which runs from Oxford Street north to Baker Street. 'During the 1960s this was an incredibly fashionable street, home to swinging London, the mini, the miniskirt and the likes of Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler. Then it all went badly wrong.'
When I pointed out that in 1992, when I reviewed the original Villandry foodstore, then Ibla restaurant (now RIP sadly) at number 92 there were 32 charity shops along the High Street, Baynham was quick to add that this did not include those shops who were not paying their rent. Food, and to a lesser extent, female fashion were targeted as the routes to a revival.
'We quickly identified two key retailers, Waitrose and the Conran group, and managed to locate them in the middle and the northern, more neglected end of the street. Conran came not just with a store but also with a restaurant Orrery and a coffee shop which obviously added glamour. Since then we have focused on creating an urban village environment via a string of characterful shops run by individuals.'
One such individual is Jean-Carlo Caldesi whose family has run a local Italian restaurant for years but nine months ago opened Caffe Caldesi, a more relaxed venue that serves pastas, salads, panini, doubles as a deli, along the ground floor with a restaurant upstairs on the site of what Baynham created from another dilapidated pub.
Baynham is happy to see that it is packed although he is more surprised to spot Jean-Carlo sitting relatively quietly actually eating lunch in the restaurant. 'I don't know how he finds the time.' he explained revealing more than just a normal landlord and tenant relationship. 'As well as the restaurants he also does magic shows and coaches the local boys' football team.'
Over a glass of Verdicchio and a board of antipasti, salami, prosciutto di Parma, slices of frittata and buffalo mozzarella, Baynham himself relaxed and revealed quite how well this food-led transformation has worked. 'Since 1995 there has been a 300 per cent increase in footfall along the High Street. That obviously helps our businesses' income substantially but it is not what I am most proud of. What I am really delighted about is that we have been able to transform the street without making it look like every other high street in the country. And that, ultimately, is not my doing but rather the passionate owners of these fantastic food businesses.'
These individuals can be seen at:
- Blagdens for fresh fish, 65 Paddington Street (tel 020-7935 8321)
- The Cheese Shop, 2/4 Moxon Street (tel 020-7359 7440)
- Divertimenti, Kitchen emporium (tel 020-7935 0689)
- Odin's, 27 Devonshire Street (tel 020-7935 7296)
- Orrery, 55 Marylebone High Street (tel 020-7616-8000)
- Providores, 109 Marylebone High Street (tel 07935-6175)
- The Union Cafe, 96 Marylebone Lane (tel 020-7486 4860)
Until their shop opens, The Ginger Pig can be found at Borough Market on Friday and Saturday.
Restaurant Of The Week
It is symptomatic of the attention to detail which Tom and Laura Aikens have lavished on their new restaurant, Aikens, that when I asked for a paper napkin to wrap up the two madeleines served with my coffee (one of four different petits fours!) for our children that I was presented with a small, top-quality white cardboard box into which they fitted perfectly.
The same care has gone into all the accoutrements of a restaurant - comfortable chairs, top-quality linen, Limoges crockery and fine glassware - as well as a substantial amount of money put into converting a former pub into a light, spacious and most elegant dining room.
Happily, the ingredients which make or break a restaurant have not been skimped on either. Gearoid Devaney, the young sommelier, smilingly chats you through a distinguished wine list and the range available by the glass and the kitchen has quite obviously been given the three-star treatment judging from the food Aikens and his brigade are producing.
Which is food to go to a restaurant for rather than even contemplate making at home. Our lunch menu included a boudin of ceps, foie gras and pickled artichokes; a frothy soup of chervil with a chervil mousse, ricotta gnocchi and thin strips of jabugo ham to add a salty finish; roast monkfish with a parsley purée and an intense red wine reduction and a gently braised belly of veal with exquisite mashed potatoes surrounded by softened coco beans.
At this stage, just when our palates were aching for a light reprieve, the pastry section surged on with the same intensity producing an oversweet, overworked chocolate and chestnut marquise with caramel ice cream. My hunch is that if the Aikens were to sit down once or twice and absorb the calm of their diningroom the pleasure of their food would be even more impressive.
43 Elystan Street, London SW3
Lunch £24.50, dinner £39.50 three courses, Monday-Friday only.