Ed Wilson and Josie Stead have taken the ethos behind their Hackney restaurant Brawn on holiday to Margate, where diners can order Mediterranean-style food and wine and be serenaded by a changing line-up of DJs while the sun sets. Fiona Sims pays a visit.
If you don't like music in restaurants, then look away now. Sargasso is a restaurant, bar and music venue on Margate's Harbour Arm. And while it's not exactly thumping, it's loud enough for diners to sway gently in their seats as they sip wine, nibble on dishes such as raw scallop, peas, cucumber and sorrel, and gaze across the harbour to Margate's sandy beach beyond. This is about as Ibiza as it gets in Britain.
Cue Hackney chef Ed Wilson who, along with his Australian wife Josie Stead, have partnered with Sargasso's owner, electronic music producer Matthew Herbert. Those familiar with the east London dining scene will know Wilson and Stead's Columbia Road restaurant Brawn. It was a trailblazer, opening in this now-gentrified corner of Hackney well ahead of the curve, offering natural wines and Med-inspired plates and attracting a far-reaching clientele, as well as becoming a much-loved neighbourhood hub.
Sargasso might never have happened if it weren't for the pandemic. They were already deep into discussions for an ambitious, multifunctional venue in nearby Hoxton – a 5,000 sq ft underground carpark with plans for an urban farm on the roof, a brewery, a canteen, a radio station, and event and retail space, plus a huge outdoor area for alfresco eating. The project was to be a partnership between Wilson and Stead, collaborator and long-time friend Eric Narioo, of Guildford-based wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrène, plus superstar DJ Gilles Peterson. But lockdown happened and panic set in, so they walked away – but that's not the end of the story, so watch this space.
Then, last January, the couple received a phone call from Herbert. "Matthew did a walk-round video of Sargasso during lockdown, with the waves crashing over the harbour wall. It excited us," says Wilson.
The site itself is just a few steps away from the seaside town's biggest draw, the Turner Contemporary, while Margate has plenty of appeal: the government pledged £22m earlier this year to fund the redevelopment of the town's cultural and historic landmarks, and there's an already thriving restaurant scene, led largely by ex-Londoners (see below).
"We had already been talking about what the next steps were for us, and here was this opportunity," says Stead, who admits she was missing her regular visits back to her home city of Melbourne because of travel restrictions. And after juggling life in lockdown with their two young, restless sons, Margate – and the sea – beckoned.
Herbert opened Sargasso in September 2019. It ran well by all accounts, with head chef Julia Robson at the helm, up until the first lockdown in March 2020. It reopened last summer, but by Christmas, after subsequent lockdowns, Robson had pulled out.
Brains and Brawn
Stead's CV includes general manager roles at London's Sketch and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental. Up until four years ago, she was the co-owner of celebrated Clerkenwell restaurant Quality Chop House, which she co-founded with Will Lander. She sold her shares in 2017 to formalise her partnership with Wilson and Brawn (in both senses – they also tied the knot), where she remains operations director.
Wilson, meanwhile, first appeared on the radar as head chef at the Wolseley in 2003, working under his ‘true mentor', Chris Galvin. Then, in 2008, he went into partnership with Narioo to open Terroirs, London's first wine bar and restaurant focusing on natural wine, which kickstarted a revolution on the capital's dining scene and saw these esoteric wines move to the mainstream, spawning a new generation of eateries and drinkers.
Terroirs garnered glowing reviews, too, earning a Bib Gourmand from Michelin, and winning AA Restaurant of the Year in 2011.
Wilson and Narioo went on to open three further restaurants, Brawn in 2010, Soif in Battersea in 2011, and the Green Man & French Horn in Covent Garden in 2012, which also each scooped a Bib Gourmand. Wilson purchased Brawn from the partnership in 2015 to focus his attention – and now one restaurant becomes two.
As with Brawn, and earlier with the Terroirs group, the cooking at Sargasso is seasonally led, drawing on the culture of European cuisine. "But for Sargasso that also means drawing on British coastal cooking, and my spin on dishes that I've enjoyed on various European coasts," explains Wilson.
Dishes, which change daily, include bar snacks such as Parmesan fritters (£6), Carlingford Lough oysters with ‘nduja (£5) and Cantabrian anchovies with lemon, pepperoncino and mint (£11). There are smaller plates such as crab, artichoke and hazelnut salad (£14), and leeks, eggs and romesco (£10), and larger plates, such as wild sea bass, caponata and summer herb salad (£28) or Alentejo pork and clams (£20), with desserts such as fig leaf panna cotta, summer fruit (£7).
Sargasso's head chef Marcelo Rodrigues has worked at Brawn for four years. "He's from Lisbon, hence the pork and clams," enthuses Wilson. "Our twist is to slow-cook the pork until it melts in the mouth."
"The oyster and ‘nduja is a riff on an old Bordelaise dish of oysters served with hot spicy sausage. And the anchovies are inspired by something I ate in Catania in hands-down the best vermut bar, where you can eat lemon straight from the tree, served sliced with anchovies, chilli and southern Italian mint. You get salt, acid, heat, everything, and it's wow."
And no, you can't do that with a British supermarket lemon. "They're county lines lemons," he jokes, AKA Amalfi lemons delivered to Brawn and brought down in the car by Stead, along with a few other ingredients – just until they've built up a network of suppliers.
"We are now working with a farm outside Canterbury called the Wonky Parsnip, which is delivering some beautiful veg, and we've got a great baker in Whitstable called Grain & Hearth. Plus, the fish, of course. We get our sea bass and lobsters from Kevin over there," says Wilson, pointing to a chap chatting on the quayside. Although there is no fishing fleet in Margate any more – "you have to go to Ramsgate for that" – explains Wilson. "We want to support as many local businesses as we can," adds Stead. "It's such a nice vibe here – everyone wants to help."
It's such a nice vibe here – everyone wants to help
Sargasso has 30 covers inside and 40 outside, where a few of the tables are now bookable thanks to some new sturdy parasols that allow all-weather dining. Staffing, unusually, has not been an issue, mainly because so many people have moved to Margate from London over the past year, says Stead. "But they have moved here as a lifestyle choice and they don't want to work long hours any more, so we have a lot of a part-timers, and that's OK – you just have to adapt."
During the summer they are open five days a week, with fewer days in the autumn and winter months (yet to be decided). "But our ambition is to stay open all year round," she promises.
When restaurants went into lockdown last March, and again later in the year, Brawn was able to continue operating after a rapid rebrand. "Josie and I couldn't get any government support, so we had to do something. The restaurant was in a good position because all the staff were supported, and we were able to pay our suppliers and the rent – thanks to funds we had saved for the Hoxton project. So we re-did the website and created a shop, which we ran until we could open the restaurant again. Then we kept the shop in the back and the restaurant in the front. Now the shop is online only, delivering nationwide," explains Wilson.
Stead adds: "It was a beautiful thing during that dark time. We operated every day, and we connected more with our local community, and were grateful for that relationship that we built through that shared period of lockdown. It was a one-stop-shop where people could come for their pint of milk and loaf of bread or pasta sauce, which we could also deliver on our cargo bike."
The cargo bike has come with them to Margate with plans for beach deliveries, but for now diners need to grab a table to enjoy what Sargasso has to offer – and that means orange wine, too. It's the most popular request by the glass at Sargasso, confirm managers Zac Gates and Carmen Mac, and indeed in Margate.
Wilson says: "We walked into a small town that had already embraced these wines. Orange wine used to be on the spectrum, but lockdown changed people's drinking habits – they have explored a lot more."
Wilson prefers to use the term real wine, rather than natural wine, not that this is highlighted in any way on the menu. "Things have moved on. No one who comes to Brawn now says, ‘oh this is weird'. People know these wines and are excited by them, and they have engaged with a new demographic – people in their 20s to 40s, plus others who just go, wow, this makes more sense to me."
The wine lists at Brawn and Sargasso are all about offering value for money and wines that people enjoy drinking above all else, says Wilson, with many from Les Caves de Pyrène, but also from seven or so other wine suppliers. "We offer a shorter list at Sargasso – around 50 bottles, because we can be more flexible. Wine is seasonal and people forget that," he says.
And yes, you can walk off the beach, grab a table and order a vermouth and some salty snacks, listen to music and watch the sun go down, channelling that legendary Ibiza bar Café del Mar, whose Balearic beats and subsequent best-selling compilation albums created a whole new genre of music.
Perhaps Wilson and Herbert could do the same here – Sargasso del Mar? "I like that," grins Wilson, as the sun slips behind the lighthouse and the music is turned up a few notches.
Can you dig it?
Ed Wilson and Josie Stead met Matthew Herbert at a music festival organised by Gilles Peterson a couple of years previously, called We Out Here.
"We had a big tent there with a kitchen, a wine bar, a dance floor and lounge, and it became a venue within a venue, which we weren't expecting. Matthew was playing the main stage with his Brexit Big Band and he came to our tent every day with his family and loved it, so we stayed in touch," explains Wilson.
For Wilson music is as important as cooking (and wine), and he has a regularly changing collection of records at both restaurants, which provide the backdrop and sound to both services. And this love of food, wine and music prompted a plan to start a festival in Sicily, called Ricci Weekender, founded in 2018 by Wilson and Peterson and now in its third edition.
"I love doing these projects collaborating with musicians," he says, sharing his plans to invite top DJs to Sargasso, and even host live radio broadcasts there. "But really I just want to be in my garden digging and playing music," he adds, with a laugh.
Digging? It turns out that Sargasso has another big attraction for Wilson – Herbert's farm, 10 miles from Margate. "We want to create a kitchen garden than can supply both restaurants," he announces. "Matthew has 10 acres with much of it undeveloped so he has agreed to let us set it up there. And all being well, I'll start digging in the autumn."
Is Margate the British coast's hottest dining spot?
An influx of creatives flocking to Margate in recent years to escape London's rising living costs have transformed it into Kent's capital of cool, and the town is now home to boutique shops, a thriving art scene and modish restaurants.
Among them is tapas-inspired Barletta on the Roof, and now Barletta at the Turner, by Ladies of Restaurants founder Natalia Ribbe and ex-Hoi Polloi chef Jackson Berg. While Angela's is a tiny, notable, ‘no waste' restaurant with an open kitchen, which has now been joined by sister restaurant Dory's, a small plates seafood bar around the corner, both run by Lee Coad, a former art director of the Financial Times and his partner Charlotte Forsdike.
Ex-London chef Kate de Syllas was one of the first to make the move to Margate, opening Hantverk & Found in 2015 offering local seafood and natural wines, later expanding into larger premises next door. But it's Bottega Caruso that gets Wilson's vote, a tiny Campanian kitchen serving southern Italian classics opened by chef Simona di Dio, who hails from the region, which she runs with her husband Harry Ryder.
And then there's Fort's coffee shop, owned by Will Pitts, who did time in east London coffee shops before deciding to open his own place here, complete with stellar cinnamon buns that has customers queuing down the street. Not forgetting Dolma Bar, another Wilson favourite, which opened last September in Margate's picturesque Tom Thumb Theatre, a Balkan food and natural wine bar from Bulgarian chef Aleksandar Taralezhkov, who was previously creative director at Code Hospitality.
Ed Wilson's top 10 Sargasso sounds
- The moving finger – Dorothy Ashby
- Asafo weyasi – Y-Bayani and Baby Naa and the Band of Enlightenment, Reason and Love
- One spliff a day – Billy Boyo
- Mr Sun – Greentea Peng
- L.A sunshine – War
- Midnight driver – Minako Yoshida
- Mi Sabrina tequana – Ingram
- Nuthern'n like thuther'n – Willis Jackson
- I want you to help me – The Travellers of Zion
- As famosas gargalhadas do yuka – Paula Lima & Ed Motta
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