Ask Ibi Issolah why he's branched out into neighbourhood restaurants with his latest project, Beauberry House in Dulwich, rather than sticking to central London dining and he looks bemused. But surely it's a bit of a gamble and a change of direction doing something local when his first restaurant, L'Etranger, is in Kensington and his career before this took in front-of-house jobs in such big-hitting London establishments as Le Pont de La Tour, Butlers Wharf Chophouse and the now closed Atlantic Bar & Grill, which he managed for six years?
"I don't see any difference with this project," he says with a dismissive sweep of the hand. "This is going to be a destination restaurant, just as L'Etranger was a destination restaurant, and exactly the same rules apply."
Go on to ask Issolah what the "rules" are, though, and, it seems, the key one above all others is simply to trust in his own "gut instinct".
"Listen, people told me I was mad when I bought a property on a ‘dead' stretch of the Gloucester Road to open a restaurant in 2002. But L'Etranger has never had a bad day [its average takings are £40,000 a week, he reveals] and that's funded me with the £1.5m I've spent on this project. Now people are telling me I'm mad to do something in Dulwich, but I similarly have a gut feeling that this is absolutely right."
Issolah says he strongly believes there's a huge opportunity to attract diners from far and wide to this little, rather old-fashioned village in south-east London. "I admit I'm going against the trend of gastropub openings in south London, but I think there's a need to open somewhere really good," he explains. "In the entire area, there's Chez Bruce in Wandsworth and Chapter One near Bromley and almost nothing else. Beauberry House can be another destination restaurant. I want to put both it and Dulwich on the map - it's such a lovely place, it deserves wider recognition."
Certainly, sitting in the stunning Grade II-listed Georgian manor house overlooking picturesque Belair Park with its pond, weeping willows and plentiful birdlife, it's impossible to disagree that this place is, indeed, somewhere special. And that's just how Issolah says he felt about the property when he first clapped eyes on it a few years ago. "I used to go and play golf in Beckenham [in Kent], dropping a friend off in East Dulwich on my way back to London. I drove past Belair House [as it was then called] and came in for a drink. I fell completely in love with the building," he says.
"Then, later, a friend told me it was for sale, so I called the owner, property developer Sam Hadjaj. We met the same day, he told me his price and 24 hours later we'd shaken hands on it."
Issolah took possession of Belair House in November 2004, keeping it running last year both to honour bookings - numerous wedding parties among them - and to thrash out planning permission with English Heritage. He closed it briefly last June to have the exterior painted and upgrade the two 46-seat alfresco
terraces, and it shut again between
1 January and 14 February this year to allow for a full refurbishment of the 54-seat ground-floor restaurant and separate late-licence bar. The upstairs renovations, which will result in a 120-capacity function suite and a piano bar, are continuing and are set for completion around time of publication, with the establishment now relaunched under the moniker Beauberry House.
The interiors, designed by Andy Martin Associates - also responsible for L'Etranger - certainly have wow factor by the bucketload. The main restaurant is wall-to-wall white, with a shiny orange floor, orange chairs, lots of mirrors and an eye-catching light fitting that resembles a mature vine. The ground-floor bar, meanwhile, is wall-to-wall black with a shiny bar and dramatic fireplace. It's all a world away from the muted interiors of the past and, indeed, forms an ultramodern contrast with the Georgian exterior.
"My aim was to bring the house into the 21st century for a 21st-century audience," Issolah declares.
Just as the look of the place departs completely from the restaurant of old, so too does the food, which cleverly melds French, Japanese and other Asian influences, reflecting Issolah's culinary passions and those of Jerome Tauvron, his executive chef and friend. Tauvron, whose career has taken in stints working for greats including Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse and Marco Pierre White as well as a spell in Singapore, says he always goes on holiday to Asia for inspiration, but "of course, I cook things in the French way because of my background".
A further essential element of the restaurant is its 600-bin wine list, boasting a particularly strong French selection, but also bottles from Austria, Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Luxembourg and the New World, not to mention the odd sake. And, just as at L'Etranger, which has won a huge following for the affordability of its wines, Issolah plans to make this list renowned for the fairness of its pricing. "I hate the fact that most restaurants put huge mark-ups on wine," he says. "We're offering a whole page of wines under £16.50 and we're going to be offering a 50% discount on wine at lunch. Many of our wines you won't find any cheaper in Oddbins."
The importance Issolah places on wine helps to explain his choice of name for the Dulwich restaurant, Beauberry being a small village in the Charolais region of Burgundy. "Some people have been shocked at me changing the name of this restaurant," he says. "But I felt I had to in order to show that the food and service have completely changed compared with the past."
Ibi Issolah: background and career
Ibi Issolah has come a long way from his humble beginnings as a Berber from Algeria. Born in 1961 into a family from Boughni in the Grand Kabylie region of the Atlas Mountains, he was brought up largely in Algiers and clearly remembers the humiliation of being singled out to receive free clothes at school.
"I was called up in front of a class of 30 or 40 kids to be given clothes because we were poor and I came to school looking scruffy. I would never wear them, though, because I felt they marked me out," he says. "But that experience has made me stronger, more determined and keener to succeed in life, so it was probably a good thing, looking back."
Issolah went on to take a masters degree at the University of Law in Algiers and, as part of his studies, came to London to learn English between 1987 and 1989. He then went to the Sorbonne University in Paris to take a further masters degree in banking and admits, had he then returned to Algeria, he "would probably have been a high court judge by the age of 30".
Instead, however, he turned his back on law, banking and the country of his birth and came back to London. "I felt that Algeria was unstable politically, and that my future lay somewhere else," he says. "I was completely fascinated by British culture - everything from the Beatles to Tottenham Hotspur FC - so I decided to come here."
The first job he landed was selling timeshare properties and, having discovered a gift for getting people to part with their money, he went on to sell financial services and insurance for a couple of years. During this time, however, he found that his real passion was for his part-time evening job as a barman at the Café Royal - "I loved talking to the customers" - so when he saw an advertisement for staff at Conran Restaurants' newly opened Le Pont de La Tour in the early 1990s, he applied and got taken on as a chef de rang.
Aged 30 and with an armful of degrees under his belt, becoming a junior waiter could have been seen as a step down for Issolah, but he explains: "I've never been afraid to go backwards and learn from the bottom in order to move forwards in life."
Almost five years of working for Conran Restaurants followed, first at Pont and then at Butlers Wharf Chophouse, where he worked his way up to assistant manager, meeting his wife Cindy, a Citibank director, along the way.
Then an introduction to restaurateur Oliver Peyton led to him being offered arguably the best front-of-house job in London at the time, manager of the Atlantic Bar & Grill. "I joined in 1995 and spent six years there," says Issolah. "It was an incredible place to work. I remember one night when we had Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Prince, Naomi Campbell and Michael Jordan all in on the same night."
By early 2002, though, Issolah felt ready to open his own restaurant. "I was lucky as I made lots of money on my flat, which I sold in order to open a business," he says. L'Etranger on Gloucester Road was that business. It opened in December 2002 and was a runaway success from day one, helped along by a string of rave reviews from leading critics, including Fay Maschler and AA Gill.
Opal Bar followed, with Beauberry House becoming the third of his company's restaurants.
Fact file: Circa Bar and Grill Group
Ownership Ibi Issolah owns 85% of the group, while the other shareholders are chef Jerome Tauvron, L'Etranger's general manager Dorian Pryce, and financier Helen Gorton
Establishments in the group
- L'Etranger, 36 Gloucester Road, London SW7 4QT; tel: 020 7584 1118
- Opal Bar, 36a Gloucester Road, London SW7 4QT; tel: 020 7584 9719
- Beauberry House, Belair Park, Gallery Road, Dulwich, London SE21 7AB; tel: 020 8299 9788
Plans To open a restaurant in Paris, likely to be in 2007 and along the lines of L'Etranger, with further projects under consideration in central London and Virginia Water, Surrey