Brett Redman, chef and owner (The Richmond, Elliot's Cafe)
If you live in Hackney and you ever fancied eating in a giant terracotta pot, or up in a tree-house, flanked by giant gold papier-mache sphinxes, then LMNT restaurant on Queensbridge Road was your spot. But awesome Egyptian-themed décor aside, the food really wasn't up to much.
Thankfully, when the “For Sale” sign went up there about six months ago, it caught the eye of local chef and restauranteur, Brett Redman. Brett has already made a name for himself by running the excellent Elliot's Cafe in Borough Market (three-time Michelin Bib Gourmand winner, FYI) and was also responsible for making the Victoria Park Pavilion Cafe a thing of beauty, too. The Aussie chef sensed a bit of a challenge, so sprung into action with his friend and co-owner, Margaret Crow, to transform the restaurant into The Richmond, which opens today (Friday March 20th). Their vision? East London's first oyster and raw bar, housed in a friendly, neighbourhood hang-out. We caught up with Brett to find out how he came about running one of Hackney's most infamous restaurants, "walking" oysters and why we're all going to be drinking natural wines soon.
How did you find the restaurant venue?
Well, I live in the area and I was walking past one day. I saw a sign and though it was for the flat above, but when I called the agents, they said it was for the restaurant and it had been on the market for a while and haven't had anyone serious interested.
Had you been planning for a while to open up another restaurant? And did the concept for the restaurant come first, or the venue?
It was more of a opportunity thing – finding a site anywhere in London is hard enough, let alone one that you think is good. It was more a thing like once that site came up, I started talking to people, most people said: “Oh, you'll never do well there, there's nothing around there - it's a dead zone". But my thinking was you'll do really well there because there's nothing around there. There's a real catchment area as you have people coming from Dalston, up from Shoreditch, down from Stoke Newington and even Angel. Plus, the amount of people that have been saying since we've been doing the restaurant up: “I've been going past every day, when are you open?”
How did you and Margaret end up going halves on a restaurant?
We've been friends ever since I first moved to London, which must have been about 2006 . I know she's always been interested in food and restaurants and she has always been supportive of different places I've been involved with over the years. There's been quite a few of those drunken nights over the years when we were like: “We should do something together!”, so we did.
What were your initial ideas for the place?
When I first found the site, I originally thought we'll just turn it back into a pub. There's already quite a few gastropubs in that area, but maybe the quality of the offering isn't quite there. So we thought we'd strip it back, do a really nice, friendly and warm neighbourhood pub, have a fireplace and sofas...which was fine, but we spent a lot of time together and sharing experiences of restaurants and food, and the idea changed.
There's hardly any restaurants in Hackney selling oysters – was it this realisation that sparked the concept?
Absolutely. We had the original idea of the pub, then there was this oyster idea. We were constantly brainstorming and thinking, how are we going to harness the oyster in with the pub thing? Then from the oyster idea came the raw bar idea and we started talking about the different dishes with raw seafood that with both really like to eat. Then we were like, that's not a pub, pubs don't serve ceviche! Oysters worked, because that's still a British thing that you can do, like steak and oyster pie. But I didn't feel like it worked that way, I didn't want to go to a pub and eat raw fish, so we had to do things a different way with The Richmond. Then we flipped it into the idea of a really nice neighbourhood restaurant, we dropped the idea of a pub and stopped calling it that and talked about it being a bar and restaurant. The bar thing tied in with the raw bar, so now it happens to be a restaurant, rather than a pub.
Will it be you heading up the cooking?
The head chef will be Jon Atashroo – he used to work at Elliot's as the original sous chef, he trained at Hibiscus and also did some time at Arbutus. It was kind of the perfect match for me as I wanted to make unpretentious, comfortable, neighbourhood food. Even though what we're doing is probably not as elaborate as Michelin star restaurants, to be able to cook things well, you need to understand the processes of doing it. It means we can focus on simple dishes, but doing them really well.
What's the most exciting thing for you on the menu?
I love the oysters we've found from this guy in Mersea Island, he's been harvesting wild oysters, so they don't use bags or net, there's no farming going on. They're completely wild creatures – did you know oysters walk?
Yes! People think oysters just sit in big bags in a oyster farms but they walk around the seabed, they waddle around looking for food.
So your oysters are like the equivalent of free-range, organic hens walking around?
Absolutely. His are a really pure example of how a wild oyster can be – he harvests everything by hand, then if he sees a shoal of oysters and thinks they're in the wrong spot, he picks them up and puts them in a better spot.
They're obviously going to be the centrepoint of the menu, how are you going to serve them up?
The majority of the oysters will just be shucked and on ice, with a range of homemade sauces so instead of going down the Tabasco route, we have a homemade yuzu hot sauce. Then we tried to break away from the red wine shallot vinaigrette idea, so we're doing a dashi vinegar and a Persian coriander and lime sauce. Even though all the ideas are based on classical thinking, we're freeing ourselves up and giving ourselves a bit more license to roam the world with ideas and flavours. There'll also be an oyster happy hour on Monday to Friday, 5pm-6pm and for a while on Saturday afternoon, too.
And what's the best dish on the raw bar?
We've got tuna as our meaty, raw-bar dish, it's inspired by Moroccan cuisine, so it's got preserved lemons, green olives, harissa and rose vinegar dressing and that's served on a big pile of blistered, chargrilled aubergine, mixed with tahini and fresh mint. It's a dish in itself. Some of the dishes are like, here's a really nice bit of raw fish with some lemon, olive oil and salt, but some of them are complex dishes in their own right. I think the tuna is my favourite. Primarily, it's all about provenance and produce, just like at Elliot's.
But you'll be doing roasts on a Sunday?
Yes, Sunday's the day, right? And it gets you out of doing brunch! I started the Pavilion Cafe and ran it for the last seven or eight years so I think I've done my fair share of breakfast and brunches over the years, I've definitely put my shift in. On weekends, that will be the busy time at The Richmond, so you have to do something that will cater to that crowd.
Will it be traditional roasts or something with a twist?
It's going to be stripped back, it'll be a piece of meat, perhaps we'll buy in a lamb and braise the shoulders of for a while, then do sharing roasts for the meal. Maybe roasting the loins for portions, then the legs will be on the menu during the week. There'll be a mixture of classics like half a roast chicken but then also doing things like larger format sharing things, a whole duck, and in season, even some game. Sides will be changing with the availability of vegetables in season, but still sticking to the idea of getting a nice piece of meat and some crispy, beef-fat potatoes, braised red cabbage or a squash gratin. Or, in summer you might have a pea, bacon, tarragon and lettuce medley. We'll still serve oysters on a Sunday, a few starters and then the roasts.
You're planning on serving up lots of natural and bio-dynamic wine too. What's that all about?
We've been doing it at Elliot's for about three years and we were one of the first people to take it on. We really go on about natural wine a lot because it really suits us and our approach to cooking. I can't drink anything other than it now! The wine is just so alive and such a pure representation of that. Wine is sold as such a commodity nowadays. Natural wine is a bit more expensive but it's way better value.
Are you hoping to start a trend with it in Hackney?
We're not forcing it down people's throats, we're hoping people will drink the wine and say it's delicious then maybe ask about it, rather than forming an opinion beforehand. Same with the food, the food is all ethically sourced and everything, but that's just basics. Anyone can walk around, sign a lease on a restaurant, read an A-Z guide about how to open a sustainable restaurant, write all the right things on the menu - but it doesn't mean it's going to be good. For me, that all has to be done just as basics. It's what you do with it and how you run the restaurant that is a much bigger being. We're trying to create an experience, you come to us and you should feel like it's a home away from home. You can get lost in here, or feel like you're on holiday.
And what about the design of the place, who's in charge? It must take a big talent to take on those old Egyptian murals...
Adam Bray – he does a great mix of interior designing and antique collecting, but I'm probably not the right person to ask about this! Margaret and Adam stick to that side and I'm all about the food.
[We're told later the vibe is “warm, elegant and inviting....with modern uplifting colours, amber lighting and a glass topped bar”]
Where do you like to eat when you're not in the kitchen?
I always go to 40 Maltby Street – it's the best value wine list in London, the wines are all natural and completely delicious. The chef is amazing too.
And finally, what would your last meal on earth be?
I'm a lobster guy. Melted, salty butter poured over the lobster, maybe some chips as well. Hopefully a few oysters on the side, too.