August 31 2011
The profession of restaurateur is a curious calling. One might gain a degree in Hospitality Science from some spurious academy, spending one’s gap year in the Maldives; or make a pile in the City, buy up one’s old bank and turn it into a brasserie; or, indeed, be bequeathed a failing Chelsea chophouse by an eccentric maiden aunt. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born to restaurants, some achieve them, and some have restaurants thrust upon them.
Serial restaurateur Marlon Abela, the owner of several smart establishments in London – Umu, The Greenhouse (where Antonin Bonnet’s food is perhaps the most underrated in London), Morton’s, Cassis Bistro – and a few in New York, falls firmly into the first category. He was born into a catering empire, and his childhood playgrounds were the dining rooms of France and Italy; inevitably, he succeeded his father into the business.
He is personable, passionate and hugely knowledgeable, as I discovered over lunch with him at Cassis, his Provençal bistro deluxe in London’s Brompton Road. Apart from food, Abela’s other great love is wine. His wine company (MARC Fine Wines) supplies many of London’s top restaurants – a fact reflected, as you might expect, on his eateries’ splendid lists.
You will search Cassis in vain for a red-leather banquette or a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. All is lustrously modern, smoothly decked out in what interior designers never call beige, herbs on the tables and bright art on the walls. The brightness extends to the kitchen, with its clever, sunny food that conjures up Provence in a forkful: sweet-scented pissaladière, top-notch Corsican charcuterie, a perfect pâté en croûte and a sonorous salad of thinly sliced octopus with capers and sauce vierge.
A few weeks later, I had dinner at A Voce, in the distinctly well-catered Time Warner building in Columbus Circle, New York. It is, for example, a floor below Per Se, Thomas Keller’s swanky New York outpost. A Voce is a big, sleek, buzzy Italian joint, built around a 10,000-bottle, glass-walled cellar from heaven. I loved it. Of particular note is the charcuterie, much of it American in origin – coppa from Iowa, bresaola from New York – and the vegetable dishes, which show imagination: fennel is dressed with pecorino, lemon and chervil; aubergine with Calabrian chilli; beets with pistachios, sweet garlic, thyme and orange.
Heftier dishes – as at Cassis, there is a deft balance between the healthy and the indulgent – include a neat reworking of osso bucco alla Milanese, with pappardelle and fennel, and a handsome pork chop with oyster mushrooms, grilled lemon and rocket. Desserts are – most unusually for an Italian restaurant – inventive and delicious.
Abela’s many plans include a London branch of A Voce, if he can find a good site, and I doubt he will stop at that: why, after all, is restaurateur spelt that way? Because there’s no “n” to it.