Jersey Special: Smith's Brilliant Bohemia

Jersey Special: Smith's Brilliant Bohemia

A chic bar packed with stylish-looking punters drinking trendy cocktails to the sound of Balearic beats. It could be London. It could be Ibiza. It’s neither.

The Bohemia bar and restaurant is at the centre of Jersey’s capital St Helier, just a few yards off of the main high street.

With a sleek street entrance dug into a steep slope, customers who daren’t venture up the stairs at the back of the restaurant would never know that the Club Hotel & Spa sits atop it.

The hotel, with its own entrance at the top of the hill, is almost a separate entity to Bohemia, yet they work together well. Polished marble with quirky light fittings and minimalist furnishings feature in both, while the chilled and relaxed vibe of the restaurant is echoed upstairs on the sun-trap terrace and lounge, complete with help-yourself honesty bar.

The laidback outlook of Bohemia might just disguise its serious reputation as being named as one of the top restaurants on Jersey.

Under head chef Steve Smith the restaurant has four AA rosettes and a Michelin star – an accolade the chef has held for more than a decade since he was just 24.

Smith is known for his precision both with the ingredient combinations he employs on the plate but also how the dishes he prepares are displayed to the customer.
Much care goes into the placement of each element and I should imagine the tweezers are in continuous use in the Bohemia kitchen. The team create works of art for your eyes before your taste buds explore new blends of flavour.

Dishes such as Smith’s signature roasted scallops with celeriac truffle, apple and smoked eel or the squab pigeon with turnip, pistachio, rhubarb and pigeon toast expand the imagination before they appear in the low-lit restaurant. But what does it take to get them here, from idea to plate?

“Some of them are really quick,” says Smith. “They can take only five or six hours if we are really happy with it and it can be served as is. Other dishes can take two weeks to get right.”

The anatomy of a dish and whether or not it tastes outstanding are not the only aspects that need to be considered.

“It’s not just being happy with a dish,” says Smith. “There is a lot to think about. Is there a set recipe to the dish that people need to follow? Sometimes you have four people in the kitchen involved in one dish, which means you have to teach them all how to do it, too.
“Serving it, plating it and all of the different dynamics of putting it together to make sure it’s right need to be considered.”

And then there is the issue of how to serve it in a restaurant.

“There have been many great dishes we have created that never made it on to a menu because they are a nightmare to serve on a busy night,” says Smith.
“In a busy evening when lots of people are going for tasting menus, we could serve up to 600 plates of food. So trying to integrate a dish into that is a totally
different challenge.”

The reasons something doesn’t make the menu for a while can be quite varied, as Smith explains.
“Sometimes it might be that a piece of crockery isn’t quite right. That means the dish won’t see the light of day until we have something that shows it off better,” he says.
“It might be that we then can’t get hold of an ingredient for a couple of days.”
Bohemia operates a number of different menu options across the day.

The a la carte classic dinner menu (£65) offers four or five choices across starters, mains and desserts, including the belted Galloway tartare with oxtail on toast, caper and raisin, but there is also a series of tasting menus to be taken with or without wine flights.

The six-course surprise menu offers dishes chosen by the house on the night, while the classic tasting menu (£79) offers eight courses including signature dishes such as the cooked oysters with cucumber and dill.

There are pescatarian and vegetarian tasting menu variants (£79), while the Prestige Tasting Menu sits as the top choice with 10 dishes including the stunning
foie gras cream with sea buckthorn and kumquat, duck salad and pecan or the crab tart and custard with mango and coriander.

“We start by using ingredients that are in season and at their best,” says Smith. “Sometimes that might mean not using asparagus for the first few weeks and waiting until it starts to get better.

“We will also use different menus in different ways to gauge the dishes and how people react to them.
“Some dishes might start off on the lunch menu, so we can see how they perform, whereas some we are more confident in might start on the surprise tasting menu before moving on to other tasting menus.”

One of the first things you’ll notice about Bohemia is the atmosphere. It’s very different to many Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK and Europe. It is fun and lively, and the jovial ambiance transcends the bar and permeates the restaurant.

“One thing this layout does do is put atmosphere round into the restaurant. And that’s good,” explains Smith.
“But you sometimes have the other side, too. If you have a rowdy crowd in the bar, that can travel through. And there are some people that come to the restaurant and want it to be a bit hushed. But for the most part it works well.”

This more open and relaxed atmosphere is certainly encouraging to customers, and a big part of that is the feeling that you could be in any high street bar or eatery, not part of a hotel.

“I think having the separate entrance is really important and gives the restaurant its own sense of identity,” says Smith. “It is clear what you are going in for.
“Sometimes when you go into the lobby of a hotel it doesn’t really have that feel, it doesn’t have an identity. Even when you go to hotels that have starred restaurants in a back corner somewhere, it can be a convoluted experience.
“Customers coming through those doors identify with Bohemia more than the hotel, and when information is passed on through word of mouth, people use the name of the restaurant rather than the hotel, and that’s good for recognition.”

While the atmosphere sets a fun tone, Smith is extremely clear that the food at Bohemia is at the sharp end.

“The restaurant is not necessarily more formal, but the food we try to do has to be of a standard that you wouldn’t be able to do at home,” he says.
“I think when you go out for dinner, or go out for a special occasion, to be able to cook it yourself or anything you could have done at home, makes it a bit of a pointless exercise.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are some really amazing home cooks out there, but when you go out for a special occasion you want to have something you can’t do yourself. That is where the food is in Bohemia.
“We want the food to taste really nice, and the combinations of flavours to perhaps be something that you wouldn’t think about trying before. We have to offer a great service and great wine. And no matter how much you spend on food, if the customer feels they have had value out of the experience then that’s a good thing.”

In the kitchen Bohemia houses the popular Chef’s Table for four to six guests offering a behind-the-scenes experience of the chefs at work, and Smith is in no doubt that Bohemia and the island in general has become a foodie haven for gastronomic tourists.

“There’s 200 restaurants over here of varying levels,” he says. “There’s a lot of people and a lot of tourists to try and feed with some really good places at really good prices.
“We get people coming here who have travelled specifically to eat in the restaurant. We have foodies. We have the hotel leisure guests and we have locals.
“We will get European tourists wandering in off the street and having lunch or dinner just because they’ve heard of the restaurant. Guidebooks help with bringing people into the restaurant, as does word of mouth.”

So, just how important are guidebooks to getting bums on seats?

“It all works hand in hand,” explains Smith. “If we make an effort to improve our food because we want it to be better for the customers, then, in-turn, the customers are happy with it and it filters through to help us do better in guide books.
“The customer is the person we want to please first and foremost. But to say the guidebooks are not important is completely untrue. They take the stress out of a choice for customers looking for something good,” he explains.
“Of course, that won’t always translate into a fantastic evening for them because restaurants are full of humans that get things wrong from time to time, but you definitely have a greater sense that you will have a nice evening out and be fairly comfortable with your choice because it has got decent ratings.”

As for Bohemia’s position as a restaurant within a hotel, Smith is another who believes that the establishments are now benefiting from creating specific destination dining.

“Restaurants that have got a strong identity within a hotel do well,” he says.
“Hotels are giving restaurants an identity again, look at Simon Rogan at Fera at Claridge’s or Alyn Williams at The Westbury.

“In the 90s you could go into a hotel restaurant and you wouldn’t know what it was. You could order anything from pasta to a French duck confit, they didn’t have the identity. I think it was the identity that was lost than actually the quality going down or anything else.”

Bohemia knows itself, and Smith charts the course using stunning food and an enviable atmosphere as his guidance points. Many could learn a lot from a trip there.

Smith adds: “There are so many rooms and restaurants being hoovered up and given an identity to make them work. You know exactly what they are serving. It just has to have a direction.”