Restaurant reviewers rarely get the opportunity to influence the beginning of a new restaurant. Invariably and inevitably, they visit only once a restaurant is open and is ripe for review rather than playing any part in the possibly more exciting period of being consulted before the builders have been called in.
But this was a role I happy fulfilled once back in 2008 thanks to Russell Norman, currently the casually dressed founder of fast-spreading chain of Polpo restaurants in London, but back then the ever-so-smartly-attired general manager for Richard Caring’s burgeoning restaurant empire. This at the time included Le Caprice, The Ivy, The Ivy Club and J Sheekey.
In fact it was about this last restaurant that Norman contacted me. The two small shops adjacent to the restaurant, which has occupied the same site on St Martin’s Court since 1896, were coming on to the market as the demand for what they were selling was moving online. What Norman asked me to do was to write, in my official capacity as restaurant correspondent of the Financial Times, a strong letter of support to Westminster Council, a letter that would accompany their official request for a change of use for the two shops.
This I was more than happy to do, embellishing my letter with two facts: that London was short of oyster bars, the use Norman had in mind, and that as units that would require chefs, waiters and kitchen porters. The number of jobs that the proposed oyster bar would create would far exceed any replacement retailer’s likely requirements.
Happily, the application was approved and the J Sheekey Oyster Bar was born and remained highly successful until last Wednesday 22 June.
Happily, because in the intervening six years, Jancis and I have often been found sitting at the counter enjoying a pre-theatre supper. The setting is stylish. The service is prompt. The location is less than a stone’s throw away from the theatres of St Martin’s Lane and those around Leicester Square (although we have on occasion even met here and walked across the river to the National). It is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. And, perhaps most importantly, their wine list is particularly interesting.
The place mat, which doubles as a menu with a wine list down either side, has for a long time listed three prices against each selection for 175 ml, a 500 ml carafe and a 750 ml bottle, a layout that makes sharing much more fun. And their current selections include a Rivaner 2014 Clos des Eglantiers from Luxembourg and an Assyrtiko 2015 from Santorini, while their most expensive white is the rare Orto di Venezia 2012 from Isola Sant Erasmo in the Venetian lagoon at £16 for a glass. Alongside these are five rosés and a fascinating range of red wines that finishes with a German Pinot Noir, a Nebbiolo 2014 from the Langhe and a 2009 Les Paradettes from Conca de Barberà in north-east Spain. Not a white burgundy nor a red bordeaux in sight.
As for the solid matter, Norman’s notion of somewhere similar to the oyster bars of New England and New York seemed so enticing. Plates of oysters; a lobster roll with mayonnaise and chips; plateau de fruits de mer; bowls of crab bisque; and the place to sit up and enjoy a satisfying fish pie. What was there not to like?
The phrase ‘oyster bar’, it would appear. My role in restaurant creation was to last a mere eight years as I recently received an email from Alvin Caudwell, the ebullient PR of Caprice Holdings, informing me that what I had helped to create was in fact no longer. J Sheekey Oyster Bar, flanked now by the restaurant part of the establishment, has been renamed J Sheekey Atlantic Bar.
This change may be small but it is decisive, according to Tim Hughes, the company’s executive chef who has always seemed to care more for this restaurant than any other. ‘The phrase oyster bar is a turn-off to most English people', he explained to me in his best no-nonsense Essex English. ‘Most of them just think of it as a place where you can be served a plate of oysters. They cannot imagine anything more, no whitewashed lobster shack in New England nor the Pearl Oyster Bar in New York.’
Money has obviously been spent to emphasise the name change. Over the side of the establishment that houses the restaurant is a new bright-red awning, with an aquamarine one on what has now to be referred to as the Atlantic side. Quentin Blake prints abound and the whole of St Martin’s Court looks smarter and more elegant as a result of the refurbishment. That is despite a tattoo parlour, called Extreme Needle, right next door.
Fortunately, the menu has not been changed too much. There is a box with oysters from British and French waters in the top-right-hand corner. A new box features half a dozen lobster dishes – a lobster and shrimp burger, lobster tempura with chilli jam and sautéed cod cheeks with lobster gyoza alongside a more classic half lobster with mayonnaise – with a few hot dishes listed below.
This name change is obviously painful personally but it is part of any careful restaurateur’s protection of his asset. The importance of the expression ‘continuous innovation’ as one factor in every successful restaurateur’s make up was drummed in to me when I was on the front line myself as a restaurateur. As long as it is only the name that changes at J Sheekey, that's all right with me.
J Sheekey Atlantic Bar 33-35 St Martin’s Court, London WC2N 4AL; tel +44 (0)20 7240 2565
Open seven days for lunch and dinner.