London newcomers – challenges in a foreign land

Yeni and Arros QD are the two restaurants to have been opened recently in central London by chefs already successful in their own, very different, countries. 

Yeni is a Turkish restaurant in Beak Street, Soho, on the site formerly occupied by a branch of Vinoteca, while Arros QD is an expensive conversion of what were once offices on Eastcastle Street near Oxford Circus by chef Quique Dacosta. ‘QD’ made his name cooking rice dishes, and particularly paella, in Valencia, south-east Spain. 

Both these newcomers are disappointing, albeit for very different reasons. 

The man behind Yeni is chef Civan Er, who has made a great name for himself with all that he has achieved at Yeni Lokanta restaurant in Istanbul, which specialises in the cooking of Anatolia.

Er must have been delighted when he heard about Vinoteca’s decision to put this site on the market, a factor forced upon Vinoteca’s founders Charlie Young and Brett Woonton by complaints from their neighbours. At the time, their options for selling must have looked quite bleak, but along came the meltdown in the Turkish economy created by President Erdoğan and suddenly a site in London’s West End looked like a very safe haven to Er, who eventually completed although not, I am told, without some last-minute delays.

He took over a site that from a layout perspective seemed ideal. The kitchen was already in the right place; the exposed brickwork of the walls well suits the down-to-earth style of cooking Er had in mind; and the restaurant has a large glass frontage that allows in plenty of natural light. Only an extremely heavy front door, which could easily be fixed, is an impediment to an easy entry.

The biggest single change Er has made is the introduction of a Josper oven on the ground floor. After a lunch here I felt this could have been put to better use.

My memories of where we ate in Istanbul and Turkish food in general revolve around aubergines, lamb, yoghurt and fresh fish, all of them in abundance, and lots and lots of sweet, sticky desserts. Very few of these ingredients feature here.

I am prepared to accept that what Er is trying to convey is his more modern interpretation of Anatolian cooking, but if so this has to start with the menu. And this looks most uninspiring.

Firstly, the menu I was offered was two days out of date. I ate there on Monday 17 June but as you can see, the menu I was given is dated 15 June. This is sloppy, to put it mildly.

Regardless of the date, the menu is dull to read. Printed on a small piece of yellow A3 paper, it uses only black ink and only small letters with no capitals even at the beginning of a new dish.

The wine list is printed in exactly the same fashion but at least contains some interesting bottles from Elaziğ, Diyarbakır, Manisa and Cappadocia. I enjoyed a glass of Kavaklidere’s 2014 Öküzgözü/Boğazkere, a blend of the country’s two best-known indigenous red wine grape varieties that seemed to ooze warmth and happiness.

Unlike the food. Among the nine starters and six main courses there seemed a genuine lack of balance between, too light in the first courses yet too heavy in the mains (lamb shank and roasted beef ribs in mid June!). I chose ‘pan-fried’ 12-month feta cheese with spinach and chilli honey and then the octopus as much for the potatoes and herbs that accompanied it. My first course was fine but with my main course the ingredients were no more than a sum of the parts with the potatoes the most disappointing. My memories of Turkish potatoes, like their Greek counterparts, are thick, slowly cooked and luscious. Here they were thin and uninteresting.

The dessert menu was paltry: only three choices and only one of Turkish origin, bread fritters with buffalo-milk ice cream. I passed, paid my bill of £54.56 for one and left, sadly unlikely to return.

Quique Dacosta is the chef behind Arros QD with his own three-star Michelin restaurant in Valencia, which specialises in the rice cooking of this particular region.

He has taken a no-holds-barred approach to opening in London, with, surely, one eye on the Michelin guide and another on the potentially large number of customers that can be attracted to this site just north of Oxford Street.

The conversion has been completed for an admitted £4.3 million, a figure that becomes understandable when one sees the vast open kitchen with its enormous wood-fired barbecues over which the paella dishes are placed plus the expensive extraction that makes them possible. The black-tiled finish to the ground floor restaurant (the pictures above and above right give only a hint) and the upstairs bar where food is also served is de luxe to say the least.

Nor has any expense been spared on the management: Aurelien Pottier, ex Hakkasan, is the general manager; Richard De La Cruz is the head chef; while Jose Balado, working his way towards the Master Sommelier qualification, is in charge of their impressive wine list.

Altogether, this will have amounted to a large hole in the budget that will have to be paid back.

The restaurant’s robust pricing should help if this does not alienate too many customers. The £9 we were charged for three bottles of water, seems high and out of kilter with many new restaurants’ policy of distributing this essential drink free of charge. So too does their policy of serving only two tiny brochettes at a time, which contributed £35 to my total bill of £466.31 for the five of us. And I am not sure who is best served by this quotation at the bottom of the bill from American writer Melody Beattie, ‘Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow’.

What distinguishes the best paella dishes is the cooking of the rice, most obviously, but at these prices it must also feature the best and and freshest ingredients. And here Arros QD is disappointing. I am not sure why – perhaps because they are one of the most recent restaurants to open and therefore join the back of the queue for the best suppliers. But their vegetable paella (£36) and their chapa (a smaller version of a paella dish at £32) of smoked eel lacked the vital freshness and vitality that is to me a hallmark of eating in a top restaurant in Spain.

Whether this will ultimately make a difference to the eventual success of Arros QD, I am not so sure. More interesting will be whether the wealthy customers, particularly the ladies who lunch, will see this rice-based menu as diet-friendly as the sushi on offer at Roka and Nobu.

Arros QD may prosper because a number of dishes, particularly the round paella dishes and certain of its desserts, suit Instagram. The future for Yeni may require a more radical solution.

Yeni 55 Beak Street, London W1F 9SH; tel +44 (0)20 3475 1903 

Arros QD 64 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8NQ; tel  +44 (0)20 3883 3525 

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