For one, the 60-cover restaurant in St James’s Market combines elements of the traditional French brasserie with Japanese cuisine using only British ingredients. How does this work? We caught up with Thomas Blythe, Anzu’s maître d’ who has been a fixture on London’s restaurant scene for nearly 20 years, to find out.
It’s one day before the press opening of Anzu and the place is a state of organised chaos. Neon-vested builders are scampering about, the bar is being stocked and, sitting in the corner, Thomas Blythe is looking into his laptop with furrowed brows.
The next evening, the place is unrecognisable. The bar is gleaming, the drinks are pouring and London’s food press is happily nibbling away on pork gyoza, pumpkin tonkatsu and the plumpest oysters, while Blythe is working the room.
The people want to know. What is a Japanese brasserie?
What we’re launching is fairly unique; some people might find the idea fairly odd. We’ve taken the traditional elements, fixtures and fittings of a brasserie, and a broad menu that’s open all day and eventually open for breakfast as well.
It’s a path that we’ll be exploring once we get through Christmas. I imagine there will be quite a bit of pork belly involved and seasoned eggs.
You’ve certainly got our attention now. Tell us about the menu.
The idea of doing a bigger restaurant and more expansive menu came from the idea that Ken has a large recipe book. So when the opportunity came up to do a restaurant on a grander scale, of course that’s the perfect excuse for him to get the recipes out. We’ll have a teishoku set menu where everything comes on one tray, which will run from noon to 6.30pm. Perfect for theatre goers. The rest of the menu encompasses classic Japanese dishes like gyoza and katsu, karage, and some inventions of Ken’s own.
But will there be ramen?
There will be a small noodle element. There will be tsukemen ramen [noodles that are dipped into a separate bowl of broth] as part of the à la carte menu and there may be other noodle elements, and those noodles will be coming from Tonkotsu.
What will we be drinking with that?
We wanted to offer a much bigger wine list than we can at the ramen restaurants. We’re not having a separate wine and sake menu, we want people to drink sake as they would wine. As our sake guru Ollie from Tengu Sake would say, ‘Sake is made like beer but it’s drunk like wine.’
So we have a brasserie serving Japanese food… in London.
We’re respecting the Japanese culinary tradition but also being innovative and doing new things. We had a chat yesterday about the possibility of doing a cheese board. There’s not an awful lot of Japanese cheese around, but if we can find British cheese that compliments the rest of the menu then I would like us to be able to offer that.
We’re using all seasonal ingredients, everything is sourced from the British Isles. That’s a good discipline. We’re importing some seasonings and sauces from Japan that are essential to some dishes. So for example the tonkatsu sauce we’re sourcing from Japan is of better quality than the one we can get here.
The design languages of French brasserie and Tokyo dining are quite different. How did you blend the two?
Our designer Mia came back from Japan having absorbed a lot of Tokyo design sensibility. The colour palette is Japanese, so is the lighting. But into that she’s also put some subtle brasserie touches. If you go to the Brasserie Bofinger in Paris at the Bastille there’s a lot of brass, and we’ve put brass into our bar and along the top. We have comfortable seating and you can come to the bar to have just a cocktail with a little dish or a coffee in the afternoon. I’ve been calling it grand on a small scale.
In terms of how we’re dressing the restaurant, it’s very grand but it’s very clean. There are no tablecloths, it’s quite utilitarian. You need to make sure that everything is right, nothing should detract from what you’re about to eat. There are no little vases of flowers. Everything on the table has got to be right, there must be a reason for it being there and it’s got to be in the right place. We’ve carefully selected the plates, dishes and condiment jugs to reflect what we want Anzu to be about. The dishes are all from Japan.
The Tonkotsu noodle bars really reflect the parts of London they’re in.
Soho for instance is a ramen den proper. When that opened in 2012, a lot of the budget went into acquiring the site so the fitout has a really cosy, slightly worn feel, and that suits it. You’ve got staff running around with bowls of hot soup; it’s got a real Tokyo feel.
So how does this work for St James’s Market?
We want to try to attract everyone into Anzu, and not just Anzu but St James’s Market as well. It’s a brand new part of London. It’s very exciting to be part of that first phase. I think the site itself, with its double-fronted windows, lends itself to us being very open. It’s a new departure for St James’s and it’s a new adventure for us! So I like to think those two things are running in tandem.
You will be overseeing the service as general manager and maître d’. What can we expect from the staff at Anzu?
Brasserie-style service is relaxed, friendly and informal, but done with confidence. The staff have been trained for two weeks, they know their products. We want this to be very open, very all-welcoming. If you want to pop in and have a few dishes you can do that, if you want to have a blowout you can do that. You can have an excellent Japanese craft beer for a couple quid, you can come in and blow 90 quid on a great bottle of Burgundy.
What is the role of the maître d’?
The maître d’ looks after entire room. If something goes wrong, it’s me going and talking to them, and I’m checking the kitchen is okay. When everything is going well and you’re standing in the middle of your dining room at 9pm on a Friday night and it’s full of people and they’re all having a great time and the staff are all working like a dream, and you take 30 seconds to take a step back and look at it, it’s a brilliant job because you’re making sure it all happens and that’s a really gratifying thing.
Your role at Anzu will be a bit more in line with what you did before joining Tonkotsu.
I spent 15 years at St John in Clerkenwell and 12 of those were running the dining room. It was a privilege to do it. I love being a maître d’. At Tonkotsu that’s not necessarily what I was doing; the nature of the restaurants meant I couldn’t really maître d’ in the traditional sense. Anzu offers me that. It offers me a beautiful room to work in with great team behind me. And there’s more of a sense of occasion as well. I’m a little bit rusty, it’s been a couple of years, but I’m looking forward to exercising my maître d’ chops again.