As I waited to hand in my coat at Bellamy's, the stylish new restaurant which opened on the site of the old Kaspia in Mayfair a month ago, an elegant woman was talking to the receptionist when the manager stepped in. "I'll seat this lady," he said. "I've been looking after her for years."
Many who have eaten around London's classier restaurants will recognise reassuringly familiar faces among Bellamy's staff. The manager in question is Chris Williams who worked at Annabel's for over 20 years, the last decade with chef Stephane Pacoud from Lyon, south east France, who has now moved across Berkeley Square with him too. In charge of the shop, which one has to walk through to reach and leave the restaurant, is Richard Cooper, formerly at Fortnum & Mason and Paxton & Whitfield, while the eminence grise of the enterprise is the dapper, ever-smiling Gavin Rankin who for eleven years was managing director of Mark Birley's distinctive group of clubs, Annabel's, Harry's Bar, George and so on. Some may recognise the restaurant's name as inspired by the fictitious club Evelyn Waugh created in his Sword of Honour trilogy.
When Rankin resigned his former position in mar 03 it was to open his own restaurant with his sights set on the sadly still empty Scott's but he didn't realise then that the eventual site he would find would be a return to where he had worked 20 years ago. "I originally opened this as a branch of the Paris-based Caviar Kaspia in the mid 1980s and I was initially rather concerned about the whole prospect of going back to somewhere I had worked before. But I have always liked the feel of the place, the mews it's in, and of course the many local customers I have come to know well."
Backed by 16 friends-turned-shareholders who combined to raise the £1.25 million necessary to completely gut and redesign the shop, restaurant and kitchen, Rankin set out on his mission to serve well done but simple food. "Like many others I am a fan of French brasseries so I spent a day with the architect Tim Flynn visiting 15 brasseries in Paris, not to come back with something that would simply ape one of those wonderful institutions but to suck out the essential factors: comfortable banquettes; brass rails; wall and ceiling lights; mirrors; tiles on the floor in front of the bar area and a single card comprising the menu and wine list which fortunately my friend Willie Landels designed."
To this Rankin has added his own touches: a striking collection of French, mainly travel, posters; an efficient extract system to remove cigar and cigarette smoke; and an emphasis that, despite the formally dressed waiting staff, the atmosphere must be fun and relaxed. In only six weeks Bellamy's does seem to have achieved just what Rankin hoped for, a wish best epitomised in two French fine art dealers dining in great comfort along the banquette from us who, in profile, could easily have been sitting in Brasserie Lipp.
This atmosphere has been fostered by an immediately enticing menu and a hugely price-friendly wine list. First courses include soupe a l'oignon; oeuf en gelée, a dish whose popularity has already taken Rankin by surprise; rillettes of duck, devilled whitebait, rock and native oysters. A second meal comprised a terrine of skate laced with capers; a lavish salad Lyonnaise and a generous, albeit undersalted, terrine of foie gras. Three plump lamb cutlets came with spinach; fillets of John Dory ringed with diced tomatoes and olive oil; although a plump fillet of cod was slightly overcooked. Their sophisticated version of the classic dessert 'iles flottantes' cannot be too highly recommended.
And while the menu prices, with most first courses under £10 and main courses under £20, will pleasantly surprise those who consider all London restaurant prices to be just too high, the wine list's mark-ups or lack of them of them will simply stun. Rankin's worthy objectives are 'to have let my customers have fun' and more selfishly and realistically bank cash rather than wait in hope for higher percentages. So Dom Pérignon 1996 is just £80; a Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne 1999 £70; and a fully mature Pomerol, 1983 Ch Trotanoy, a rare sight on any wine list, £78. The big steal is the Cheval Blanc 1982 on the list at £650, (around the £400 mark retail), which Rankin recounted with some glee was enough to entice in one wine enthusiast walking past to come in and dine on his own.
My enthusiasm for all that Rankin and his team have achieved in little over five months comes with two quibbles, both of which go to the heart of what I believe a restaurateur of the 21st century has to deliver. The first is the abolition of the cover charge which here at £1.50 could easily be absorbed in the menu prices. The second and more fundamental is the accountability of the restaurant's suppliers. There is no mention at all of where the beef, lamb veal or quail come from or whether the fish had been caught on lines via day boats or by more industrial trawlers.
Customers today need this as much as the reassuring service, hugely satisfying food and attractive wine prices Bellamy's has begun to provide already, a combination which I hope may last as long as its inspiration which Waugh created half a century ago.
Bellamy's 18 Bruton Mews, London W1J 6LY 020-7491 2727.
Restaurant closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Shop closed Sunday