This article was also published in the Financial Times.
My first meal at La Petite Maison in London, situated on a quiet corner site in Mayfair that is very different from the warmer surroundings of its initial outpost in the old town of Nice on the Côte d’Azur, simultaneously revealed the hidden pleasures and the unexpected management frustrations of investing in restaurants.
While the pleasures were obvious from all that we ate, they were accentuated when Raphael Duntoye, the Nigerian-born head chef, stepped out from behind the counter of his open kitchen, walked over to where his Japanese wife was eating, picked up their seven month old daughter, Saya Sophia, from her buggy and then, as proudly as any father, carried her round the dining room. As his daughter was passed without a moment’s demur from table to table and stranger to stranger, this London restaurant quickly took on the family air of one of the many older established counterparts in the south of France or those around Genoa in Italy from which this newcomer draws its culinary inspiration.
Less uplifting had been the appearance of our waitress. As we sat down I had noticed out of the corner of my eye that as she stood by the bar surveying the room she was in fact chewing gum. I looked away and thought that by the time she came across to our table the gum would have found its way into the bin. But this was not to be. While she had the grace to put it under her tongue as she took our order, she was chewing again as she stood by the terminal and transmitted our order to the kitchen.
I have a feeling that Arjun Waney, the successful venture capitalist who has already backed such restaurant winners as the Asian-inspired Zuma and Roka in London, will quite quickly iron out this particular, so to speak, teething problem.
Arguably, however, La Petite Maison is perhaps even more of a commercial risk than riding the market for Japanese food as Waney has done so successfully with his chef, Rainer Becker, at Zuma. While both are located in former restaurants, which certainly minimises the costs of conversion (Zuma was formerly a Chicago Rib Shack and La Petite Maison used to be the chic, Italian restaurant Teca), Waney has in this instance followed his personal preferences. Having been an enthusiastic diner at La Petite Maison in Nice for the past decade (it opened there 19 years ago), Waney has decided that London is ripe for this style of very fresh, light Mediterranean food.
In doing so, Waney has already managed to upset some of those who know and love this particular Niçois establishment. They feel that it cannot possibly be the same without the dappled light and sunshine that make life there so enjoyable or without the presence of its patron, Nicole Rubi, with whom Waney has now entered into a partnership in London with prospective other sites in Dubai and Hong Kong already under consideration. Not having eaten in Nice, I am not so sure that their disillusionment, chewing gum aside, will be justified – although come a winter, colder and as damp as an English summer, this restaurant may face different challenges.
But in the interim Waney and his team have got off to as good a start as possible. The corner site on the edge of a pedestrianised street parallel to Bond Street has been well chosen because it allows for outside tables. The interior designer firm of David d’Alamada has justified its selection by cleverly opening and lightening up what was formerly a much darker interior and which now maximises whatever sunshine is on offer. A similar treatment to the kitchen both internally from the restaurant and externally from the street must be uplifting for the brigade’s esprit de corps. And the room’s inherent brightness is mirrored by a row of large glass vases laid out on a counter in front of the open kitchen which hold copious quantities of all the principal, inspirational Mediterranean ingredients – tomatoes, artichokes, courgettes, aubergines and peppers – which a couple of young chefs, in their currently pristine white uniforms, are studiously preparing.
All of these ingredients and more Duntoye, who was head chef at Zuma for three years, has faithfully collated into a fresh and lively menu of dishes that are designed for the table to share and appear as they are ready. On my first visit three of us shared five of the first courses that included the more prosaic stuffed Mediterranean vegetables, ultra-crisp courgette flowers with sage and anchovies, an expertly dressed salad of French beans with foie gras, some deep fried squid and a very finely sliced octopus salad. Despite our waitress’s admonition that a single main course of a fillet of sea bass baked in salt with artichokes, girolles and tomatoes would not be enough for us, after all these we were more than satisfied. That is until the appearance of what can only be described as one of the best and most generous vanilla crème brûlées which we shared enthusiastically until the final few spoonfuls when each of us secretly began to hope that the others would put their spoons down. But nobody did.
A subsequent business lunch revealed the same culinary high standards but a definite awkwardness in trying to fit the four first courses we had chosen to share onto a table for two. But this method of ordering, while suggested, is not prescriptive and our meal featured not only some excellent warm prawns in olive oil and a fresh salad of broad beans and pecorino but also two fillets of turbot on the bone precisely cooked in white wine and olive oil. Only the ratatouille disappointed – overcooked vegetables.
The biggest challenge for Duntoye and Waney may come only in a few months when these key Mediterranean vegetables disappear for the winter. Their grilled veal and beef, however, is of a very high quality while the whole roast chicken with foie gras, which should be ordered as soon as you sit down as it takes an hour to prepare, is as good as any cooked at home. And there will always be a bouillabaisse to look forward to.
In the interim, La Petite Maison’s distinctive style is a welcome addition to all that London currently has to offer. Gum chewing waitresses aside, of course.
La Petite Maison, 54 Brooks Mews, London W1, 020-7495 4774. Open lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
La Petite Maison, 11, rue St Francois-de-Paule, Nice, France, 00334 93857153. Dinner only Monday-Saturday.