The opening of Norma this week marks the first standalone restaurant from the newly launched Stafford Collection. Fiona Sims talks to COO Stuart Procter and culinary director Ben Tish about their ambitious plans for the group
Earlier this week, a new restaurant called Norma opened on London's Charlotte Street. From noon, it offers an all-day menu running through to last orders at 10.30pm, seven days a week. The menus feature dishes that are Sicilian-inspired, drawing on the Moorish influences on the island. So far, so London, you're probably thinking. But Norma isn't an individual venture or a restaurant group-backed opening. This is the first standalone restaurant from the folks behind the five-red-AA-star hotel, the Stafford London in Mayfair.
Yes, that 107-bedroom grande dame tucked away in James's Place, with its wonderfully eccentric bar and restaurant packed with British classics. This new restaurant is a one-and-a-half mile taxi ride away from the Stafford London, or a 30-minute walk, which could be the moon as far as some Mayfair residents are concerned. It's bold, yes, brave, certainly, and not something British hotels normally do. But there's method in their madness – lots of method.
Stuart Procter, chief operating officer (COO) of the Stafford Collection, explains: "The majority of our guests stay for 2.8 nights, so that's dinner in our restaurant, the Game Bird, for one night; supper in our bar, the American Bar, another night; and wherever our concierge recommends for the third night. We are forever sending them to our good mates, such as Jason Atherton's restaurants, or Le Caprice, Scott's, J Sheekey's and Wiltons. Now, you can add Norma."
"But there's another good key reason," continues Procter. "Without sounding smart, our F&B outlets are full to the brim. If you go to the American Bar tonight without a reservation, you won't get in – we will turn away 150 people, I guarantee you. And the Game Bird will be full, because it's only got 45 seats. We have 167 clients sleeping with us on the majority of evenings. We have to maintain and enhance what we do," he reasons.
Add to that the fact that 60% of the Stafford London's clientele is American, and opening a standalone restaurant in another part of town is something American hotels actually do, and it all starts to make sense. But how will Procter persuade his wealthy guests to choose Norma? After all, high-net-worth individuals are notoriously difficult to please, and they may not want to stray too far from their cossetted comfort zones. Fitzrovia, while hardly slumming it, isn't Mayfair.
"We know our clients and we know what they like. Remember, 60% of our guests are repeats – they're like family, they trust us, and they will travel for good food. It's better that we send them to a restaurant that we have control of than one we don't. I know that the team we've got in place, from front to back of house, is the best in the business, so we know we can happily send Joe Baloney from New York (I won't mention any names) to Norma and the guys will nail it. If I send them somewhere else, sometimes they come back and say their table wasn't quite ready, or something else," explains Procter, who became general manager at the Stafford London in 2006, realising a wish to run the hotel since he was 16 years old.
So, what about the rest of the clientele who will make up the customers at Norma? "I think it will mostly be a young crowd – a Roka kind of crowd," predicts Procter, referencing the popular contemporary Japanese eatery from the Zuma Restaurants stable just down the road.
Falling into place
There is a third key to all of this – chef Ben Tish, the former chef and partner of the hugely successful Salt Yard Group. Tish was appointed as culinary director at the Stafford London last year. Since then, he has re-launched the menu at the revamped American Bar with Salt Yard-style small plates (a rather radical move for the resolutely traditional cocktail hotspot), which have been going down well, both Tish and Procter report.
Tish has also overseen the direction of the Game Bird restaurant, which, since opening, has enjoyed some good reviews for its classic, retro-inspired British cooking – from a lobster and crayfish cocktail to chicken Kiev – plus some enthusiastic tableside service, including filleting fish, carving beef Wellington and flambéing crêpes Suzette.
Tish initially left the Salt Yard Group to open his own restaurant. He even had the funding in place, but the site in Soho fell through. "I was a bit disheartened," he remembers. "There was so much doom and gloom about the industry. But I still really wanted to do this. Then a chance introduction led me to Stuart at the Stafford London and we got on like a house on fire."
Procter already had a plan to expand the business, which, as announced by The Caterer in June, took the form of the Stafford Collection, incorporating the Stafford London; the newly acquired, 26-bedroom, four-red-AA-star Northcote hotel in Langho, Lancashire; and Norma, with Procter promoted from general manager of the hotel to COO.
And there was Tish, champing at the bit to open a restaurant, offering a concept that they loved – Sicilian-inspired food with a Moorish influence, which, Procter points out, is food that everyone wants to eat. "So they got me on board and we started looking for sites," grins Tish.
Location, location, location
The building in Fitzrovia wasn't their first choice, Tish admits. They originally started looking in Mayfair. "But the rents were so ridiculous, and this is our first project," he shrugs. They then set their sights on Covent Garden, but when that didn't work out, they enlisted the help of a property agent who found them the spot in Fitzrovia, formerly a Brasserie Blanc.
"Instantly, it felt right. Aside from the fact it's a pretty street and the footfall is through the roof, it's an interesting building – an old Georgian townhouse set over five floors. It's long and thin with narrow stairs, but it has bags of charm and original features," describes Tish.
The basement kitchen, with its 13-strong brigade – led by Malta-born head chef Giovann Attard, formerly sous chef at the Stafford – has a dumb waiter to take the strain. The main restaurant is on the ground floor, where there is a raw bar near the entrance to grab attention and where a chef preps constantly.
Crudo (raw fish and shellfish) is a USP at Norma, "as it is in Sicily," says Tish. "We have ingredients such as British cherrystone clams – they're meatier than oysters. We serve them au naturel and with a shallot and saffron dressing," he reveals.
"Crudo was a Moorish creation. They cured the fish with citrus as a refreshing way to eat super fresh fish in the sweltering heat,' explains Tish. He should know – his newly published third book, Moorish (£26, Bloomsbury), deals with the subject, and includes a rather intriguing version of the dish, pairing sea bream with bergamot and 'nduja.
The dining room continues onto the second floor, seating 74 across both floors. There is also a small bar, where Marsala, a Sicilian fortified wine, features. Norma offers a selection of Marsala by the glass, from dry to sweet. "No one really knows about it, so we thought, well, it ties in completely with the concept and it's delicious, so why not? And it pairs well with food, especially the raw bar," adds Tish.
On the third floor, there is a private dining room, which seats 12, where Tish and his team offer sharing dishes, such as couscous studded with shellfish – a west-coast Sicilian classic. "It's a great family-style centrepiece," he explains.
Inspired by Sicily
Another dish influenced by Tish's frequent trips to Sicily is the grilled spiced whole mackerel with seasonal greens and an almond-vinegar sauce. "It's gorgeous. The crust has got crushed-up coriander and cumin seeds in it, and the sauce is a bit like the Spanish ajo blanco, another Moorish dish. There's a real North African thread going through the menu," he explains.
And what about pasta Norma? The classic Sicilian dish originates from Catania and was created, so the story goes, for the 19th-century composer Vincenzo Bellini, who once lived there and whose most famous opera was called Norma. The dish is stunning in its simplicity, a combination of aubergines, tomatoes, ricotta salata and basil. "We're a bit split on this. If we do put it on the menu then I would keep it classic," suggests Tish, tentatively. Procter is firmly in the pasta Norma camp.
There are other pasta dishes, such as spaghetti with almonds and crab, inspired by Tish's trip to the Aeolian islands to the north of Sicily; a strozzapreti with a pork ragù flavoured with orange, mint and anchovies; and tagliolini with sardines and fennel, another Sicilian classic. "I am drawn to this part of the world, and travel here as often as I can," he says.
On the dessert front, expect Sicilian classics such as a line-up of granitas and cannolis, plus a twist on a Moorish classic: a brioche-style bun stuffed with ice-cream and covered in chocolate sauce. And the best part? All of this can be ordered any time of the day after the doors open at noon – still a rarity in the capital.
"We did look at offering breakfast too, but Charlotte Street doesn't wake up until 11am, so we said, let's forget it," explains Procter. "Instead, let's do a tip-top lunch straight through to dinner – an all-day service, which is as it should be these days."
The Game Bird also offers an all-day service. "You can eat what you want, when you want it. We might have someone eating Dover sole for £50, next to a person scoffing scones and a cup of tea. When I inherited the Stafford, there were loads of rules and regulations because that was St James's – you had to wear a jacket and tie, and the restaurant closed at 2pm. But that's not luxury. Time is luxury today. And if I want to eat Dover sole at 4pm – and, by the way, my room is costing £2,000 per night – then I will eat Dover sole at 4pm," says Procter.
Creating an ambience
That luxury extends to Norma's interiors, too. They are the work of Rosendale Design, who also oversaw the revamp on the American Bar and the Game Bird, and is currently working its way through bedrooms in the main house at the Stafford London. "It's a really nice finish at Norma. Check out these North African tiles and these burnt orange velvet banquettes," urges Procter. "You know when you are offered the upstairs option when you book a table in a restaurant and it feels like the cheap seats? Well, it isn't like that at Norma," he continues. "Everything is wow. Yet there is a real cosiness here, whether there are eight people in the restaurant or 74 – you just feel it." Hopefully, others feel it too, especially as Norma might be the first of a few more restaurant openings from the team.
In addition to the Stafford Collection's plans to look for more properties to own or manage along the lines of the Stafford London, Procter reveals that the expansion plans will include opening new restaurants, which Tish will oversee. "We would like to go abroad, probably Egypt, possibly Istanbul. But we won't kid ourselves – this has to work first," he assures.
"We believe the market likes the food Ben cooks. It's good family fare – there's something for everyone. Plus, we, as a team, have a big passion for food and beverage and a lot of knowledge, so we are like, right, we can do this. Let's start with one and nail it, and then see where we can take this," concludes Procter.
From the menu
- Red prawns, rosemary, orange £15
- Monkish crudo, coriander, mint, crispy capers, peas £11
- Salt marsh lamb crudo, lamb fat crostini £10
- Broad bean and fennel seed soup £8
- Rose veal, smoked eel mayonnaise, pickled carrots £14
- Saffron arancini with wild mushrooms and fontina £11
- Roasted whole Cornish mackerel, spices, almond dressing, kale £20
- Charcoal-grilled Longhorn beef, grape must, borlotti, romano pepper £31
- Stuffed courgettes with toasted grains, sheep's cheese, marjoram, chilli, lemon £18
- Plum and rose water cake, whipped mascarpone £8
- Brioche, salted caramel ice cream, bitter chocolate sauce £8
- Slow-cooked cherries, almond milk panna cotta, cherry sorbet £8
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In