British restaurant correspondents who have looked on enviously as their football colleagues have filled their weekly columns detailing the spending splurges of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Chelsea Football Club now have their own mysterious millionaire to write about.
He is Marlon Abela, 29, who for the past five years has been buying fine wine on a grand scale at Christie’s, Sotheby's and across Europe and has subsequently spent several more millions on two London restaurants, The Greenhouse and the private members’ club Morton’s, which he has recently re-opened close to one another in Mayfair. A third, and his first Japanese restaurant, Umu, will open close by in Bruton Place in July.
This is the British division of his restaurant company, MARC (Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation). Over in the US this company has one restaurant at the moment, Gaia (the Goddess of Mother Earth) in Greenwich, Connecticut, but this number will definitely grow quickly if Abela has his way. Here he and his chef Bjorn van der Horst (formerly with Alain Ducasse and at New York’s Picholine) have pioneered a new style of cooking and presenting certain dishes in jars which, according to the trustworthy reviewers I have read, definitely enhances flavours particularly of slow-cooked dishes.
If this is the beginning of a new restaurant empire then Abela is reluctant to talk about it. When I met him at Morton’s he looked rather anxiously at his protective PR and explained that he had been advised against mentioning this particular phrase and that rather he wanted to concentrate on just how fortunate his formative years had been. 'We grew up in the south of France with a Lebanese cook and probably the best produce in the world all around us. This is the background that drives me today – to imbue my restaurants with the same quality and my staff with the knowledge to deliver all this to our customers.'
Abela’s late father made his money in oil trading and food service (the Albert Abela Corporation was sold by his heirs to Sodexho for US$900 million in 1999 ) and it is this money which his son is now putting to a more hedonistic end. But there is no doubt that his son has particularly good taste in food and wine as well as the appreciation that the very top tier of the restaurant business does not generate quick returns. 'We are in this for the long term', he repeated more than once and quite happily as though relishing the long sequence of tastings that this will involve him in.
There is no doubting too from an objective point of view that Abela has pinpointed an opportunity in the London restaurant market. Despite the current large number of restaurant openings there has been very little new at the top end and at the moment the usual suspects – The Square, Le Gavroche, Locanda Locatelli, The Capital Hotel – are extremely busy and very difficult to get into unless you are a regular customer. Sketch, which fans of chef Pierre Gagnaire looked forward to, has only delivered ridiculously high prices while the newly upgraded hotel restaurants are long on formality but short on glamour.
This may of course be the case because the demand for such restaurants is gradually disappearing as we seek more casual but still refined arenas such as The Wolesley and Cipriani, whose presence on either side of the Abela trio may delay his restaurant’s eventual profitability. But having invested so heavily and with the rumours circulating that he is looking at even more London sites, Abela, on the evening I met him, seemed more concerned about fine tuning the temperamental lighting in Morton’s first-floor restaurant overlooking Berkeley Square than contemplating when or even whether a definite return on his significant investment will materialise.
It is easy to see where the millions have been spent as both the dining rooms at The Greenhouse and Morton’s exude comfort and luxury without being overtly ostentatious. Service from a predominantly young staff is formal but friendly and the style of service, without those now outdated cloches, is absolutely correct. As much attention has been put into hiring the right staff too with award-winning sommelier James Payne an obvious coup.
Almost everything we ate from a kitchen that was barely a month old was very good too with dishes that comprised excellent ingredients, originality and great flavours. Two fish starters were excellent: a tartar of wild sea bass with Sevruga caviar and blinis and seared diver caught Scottish scallops with an artichoke purée. A piece of turbot was precisely cooked with asparagus, morels and the now de rigeur foamy sauce; a generous Périgord duck breast with spiced dahl and a crisp samosa; and a clever dessert offered light millefeuille filled with either vanilla, caramel or strawberries. The onslaught of extra dishes before and after dessert made it even more difficult to reconcile the fact that the meal had begun with an entirely inappropriate and amateurish deep-fried ball of Brie.
The wine lists defy criticism. They combine width and depth – there are over 2,000 different bins in each restaurant – all kept in specially air-cooled, expensively crafted units – and they include not just the obvious but also such hard to find wines as red burgundies from Dugat-Py at reasonable mark-ups. A magnum of 1982 Haut-Brion which seemed to give a great deal of pleasure to seven animated Frenchmen and women was on the list at £1,100, less than double its retail cost, once VAT has been removed, via www.wine-searcher.com. One restaurateur friend has already calculated that the £800 membership fee to Morton’s will be less than the savings he will make by taking advantage of Abela’s long-term buying and friendly pricing strategies.
Abela is now concentrating all his efforts into Umu, where he claims the raw ingredients will be of the same unimpeachable quality. Here too, another young chef, Ichiro Kubota, whose father is a highly respected chef in Kyoto, will be given the opportunity to flourish under the Abela patronage.
Restaurants, unlike football teams, do not compete in leagues or knock-out competitions so Abela’s millions may not make quite the same impact as Abramovich’s. But his standards are impeccably high and his vision admirably long term, which can only be to the benefit of anyone eating out in London.
Morton's, 28 Berkeley Square, 020-7499 0363, closed Sundays.
The Greenhouse, 27A Hay’s Mews, 020-7499 3331, closed Saturday lunch and Sunday
Gaia, 253 Greenwich Avenue, Connecticut, 203-661 3443.