When a much-loved restaurant changes hands, how does the new owner keep the loyalty of diners while simultaneously imbuing the place with their own identity? Change the name? Change the decor? Change the style of cooking?
The Square – the Mayfair restaurant at which chef and co-owner Phil Howard earned two thoroughly deserved Michelin stars over his 25-year tenure – is a case in point. Sold two years ago to Marlon Abela, proprietor of two other Mayfair two-stars – Umu and The Greenhouse – it has now reopened, with chef Clément Leroy at the stoves.
Howard decamped 18 months ago to Elystan Street, in Chelsea, where his brand of restrained, harmonious classicism – I always think of him as the Mozart of gastronomy – continues to attract a faithful clientele (and he still makes the world’s best lemon tart). At The Square, meanwhile, the name remains the same, but Leroy’s cooking is following a bolder, more contemporary aesthetic.
Most dramatic of all is the restaurant’s change of decor. The clubby, old-fashioned air of luxury that pervaded the dining room is gone; in its place is an edgier space designed by Virgile + Partners: concrete-walled, glass-bricked and more like a contemporary art gallery than a cafeteria for the well-heeled.
Not that it is uncomfortable – far from it. Bucket seats cradle the most demanding of Mayfair derrières; tablecloths cosset the knees; polished glasses gleam in the spotlights… it is a little like eating in Shoreditch, but doing so in business class.
For the gluttonous Gannet, however, the question is not about the name, or the decor; it is whether the food is any good.
In a word, yes. Leroy has a rare empathy with his ingredients, either luxurious – a lobster tail hunched over a fine, deep-flavoured shellfish reduction, sparkling with drops of tarragon oil, Kentish saddle of lamb threaded with razor clams and cooked rare, seaweed butter adding an umami hit. Or humble – pumpkin purée, glazed like a crème brûlée, topped with a sphere of chestnut jelly and lovage foam; or fried globe artichoke (like a delicate version of carciofi alla giudia, the famous Roman Jewish dish) with a jelly of barigoule sauce, smoked egg yolk and Parmesan ice cream.
It is exciting cooking – avant-garde, even – but it has its roots firmly planted in the traditions of French haute cuisine: 16 years ago, Leroy was part of the kitchen brigade that earned Restaurant Guy Savoy its third Michelin star, and his pedigree shows. Nothing is smothered in sauce, prime ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, and while all the bells and whistles of ambitious, full-throttle gastronomy are present and correct, Leroy has a reverence for flavour that rejects the flashy or the faddish.
My thesaurus offers, as synonyms for “square”: strait-laced, bourgeois, stick-in-the-mud, stuffy and boring. The Square’s new incarnation, I am pleased to say, is exactly the opposite.