Restaurateurs Sam and Eddie Hart will be remembered as legends of the 21st century restaurant world, says Spear's scoffer, William Sitwell.
Ten years ago, two brothers, Sam and Eddie Hart, decided to open a Spanish restaurant. The auspices were not good. It was March 2003, the eve of the Iraq war – not exactly an appropriate time to create a place of exuberant fiesta – and the restaurant was set in a basement.
Windowless basements are good when the weather is cold; many of us might happily have dined in restaurants set only in basements these past six months. But March 2003 was a warm spring and it led to a hot and very long summer.
And the food that the Hart brothers were offering was tapas, not just ordinary local Spanish joint type tapas – greasy fish, tired tortilla, weak manchego – but well-sourced, super fresh and Moorish tapas, in other words: expensive tapas. And while Britain wasn’t in recession, it wasn’t exactly a Gordon Brown boom, and Londoners were as tight-fisted as ever.
So with great aplomb Sam and Eddie opened Fino, underground on a hot evening, as the nation nervously watched our boys go in, with a plate of ham costing about eight quid.
Needless to say it was an instant success. Local office workers – the media and advertising world of Soho – flocked to Rathbone Street — even managing the stumbling block that the restaurant though its address was on Charlotte Street – and the critics ate, pondered and wept rapturously over their keyboards.
This week many of those same critics ventured below stairs once again to celebrate the staying power of one of the capital’s best Spanish restaurants. And being the open-minded, democratic charmers that they are, the Hart boys even let in some bloggers for a free lunch.
Quo Vadis is one of William Sitwell's favourite places in London
Today the brothers – with their business partners – have three restaurants. There’s Barrafina on Frith Street, modelled on Barcelona’s most famous tapas joint, Cal Pep, and an establishment that kicked off London’s most tiresome food revolution: the no-reservations revolution. And there’s Quo Vadis, one of my favourite places in London, where Jeremy Lee abides over the stove with majestic perfection and with the most beautifully-designed menus I’ve ever seen (and not just because it has words like onglet and rabbit and duck pie on it) — which even includes a weather forecast.
Many strive to create the magic of a restaurant, that thing that happens when the food, room, people and staff merge together in happy, fluffy, fuzzy, restaurant heaven. Many fail.
The Hart boys succeed. And it might have something to do with the calibre of staff they hire – managers like Jon Spiteri – seemingly eccentric but totally in control and sharp – or chefs like Jeremy who don't just cook food, they passionately transform ingredients into beautiful creations for the soul.
Meanwhile Sam and Eddie (pictured left) get the balance right between enthusing and respecting their customers. And so people like me rave about what they do and how they do it.
Then there’s the Fino food and the sherry and the Albarino. The former looking a bit like this: occasionally fiery pimientos de padron and those garlicky chopped-up-tomatoes-coated crostini. Melting plates of Iberico ham, which work even better when you shove down a warm, slightly too large gooey salt cod croquet. Empanadilla filled with crab – someone should take them down to Cornwall and show them what they’re doing wrong with the pasties.
Or peppery, rich cuttlefish with soft chickpeas or slices of baby gem lettuce dressed with an anchovy sauce and topped with the thinnest slice of pancetta imaginable. Then there are those delicate, almost heartbreakingly small, baby lamb cutlets. With each mouthful you lose sympathy for the lambs, willing the farmers on to give more of those milk-fed little things the chop. There are even pig’s tails served with prawns and potatoes, which is a dish that simply makes travelling underground on a hot day essential.
So the Hart boys do all this stuff, they do it with great charm and it looks like they really love what they do (I’ve spotted them dining together with key staff upstairs at Quo Vadis, passionately discussing menus as if they were talking about art or literature).
One day we will look back on the early part of the 21st century and recognise that these guys were legends of the restaurant world.