London’s The Strand is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, with Charing Cross at one end, Fleet Street at the other and Covent Garden sandwiching it against the river. The high footfall means that bars and restaurants fight for every position that becomes available and the battle for customers is fierce.
So how do you stand out from the crowd? Especially if your direct competitors come in the form of The Savoy, ME London, The Waldorf Hilton and the Strand Palace Hotel? Well, the One Aldwych hotel does it quite nicely, actually.
“It can be a tough area, there is so much going on around here,” says Dominic Teague, executive head chef of One Aldwych. “And there is still the perception of the hotel restaurant being just for those staying there.
“But at the same time, as a chef, having a hotel backing you means you have less to worry about, there is a team behind you. You also have a readymade clientele in the rooms upstairs if you can get it all right.”
But getting bums on seats is the name of the game, no matter where they come from.
So to achieve that, the hotel hosts two restaurants, which are both exciting for very different reasons.
In the basement there is Basque-concept restaurant Eneko with Bilbao chef Eneko Atxa – the man behind three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi, which was previously voted the 16th-best restaurant in the world.
On the mezzanine, meanwhile, overlooking the lobby, the new-look Indigo restaurant is creating an excellent niche for itself under Teague’s leadership.
Eneko has its own street-facing entrance and distinctive décor, while Indigo is more akin to a modern hotel restaurant, being through the lobby entrance and hosting the breakfast service. But after a refurbishment of the kitchen and restaurant, Indigo has come up with its own USP, as Teague explains.
“In terms of clientele, Indigo is far more mixed. Obviously the location brings in all sorts of people (it is also opposite both Somerset House and the Lyceum theatre), so our offer is more mainstream than Eneko’s,” he says. “But we are putting a lot of work in to be a nice restaurant with a great service. But ultimately we have to work a bit harder for it.”
But while the kitchen was significantly upgraded and the Indigo concept was created, it is Teague’s menu changes that are starting to bring the restaurant into the public eye.
Teague has a pedigree, having begun his career as an apprentice at the Lanesborough Hotel before heading to Marco Pierre White’s L’Escargot in 2000 where he was executive chef.
His previous stint was two years as the head of a team of 90 chefs at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados. But everywhere he has been his commitment to careful sourcing, using foraged foods and forgotten flavours, has remained.
His style of food at Indigo is described as contemporary British with “gentle invention”. But his decision to make the entire menu both gluten- and dairy-free has been a revelation.
“It has been a huge success since we launched it,” he says. “We did it all very quietly and subtly to start with and then it has gone crazy.”
The restaurant, which has 65 covers, regularly seats more than 100 on an evening and half that number again during the lunch service, so something is working. But thisis no quick fad that’s likely to fade, says Teague.
“It was not done just to jump on the trend,” he notes. “I passionately felt that more and more guests every day were coming in and requesting gluten-free and dairy-free dishes and I knew this was not going to go away.
“We did a bit of research, and with four out of 10 people choosing this way of dining as a lifestyle choice rather than an allergy decision, we reacted and adapted to it.
“We were looking and there wasn’t anywhere at the top end restaurant level doing it at the time, so there was a bit of a gap in the market.
“We thought ‘Why not make a great menu adhering to those free-from categories?’.
“We didn’t tell anybody about it for three months after the launch and not one person realised or complained and it just grew from there.”
So, do people now actively search them out because of the menu change?
“I think we are getting there,” says Teague. “We still have a lot to do, and we are going to be more proactive moving forward and plugging it. I was a bit nervous at the start as I didn’t want to be seen as this trendy wacky thing, you don’t want to put other people off. So now it has been out there for a while we can push it s bit more.”
Teague still sticks to his cooking processes when it comes to his menu and he won’t just put a dish onto the menu because it adheres to the gluten- and dairy-free rules. It has to be quality.
“There have been dishes we have had to work on to get right, like the panna cotta because of the cream involved in creating it.
“We used rice milk at first, but it wasn’t good enough so we didn’t do it. We have kept working at it and developing it and, now, using coconut creams, it is beautiful and you would never know there was no dairy in it.”
There are a la carte, set theatre menus and tasting menus available at Indigo during different points of the day with dishes such as chilled Wye Valley asparagus with summer truffle mayonnaise and wood sorrel; tenderloin of Rhug Estate pork with confit vine tomato, Jersey royals and Merguez sausage; or Oakchurch Farm strawberry parfait with white chocolate and baby basil.
“When we first started, the process of creating (dairy- and gluten-free) dishes was a lot slower, but once you build up your recipe database, you get used to it and can speed up,” says Teague.
“Like there is a pasta recipe we have developed now. We had a famous Italian pasta chef come in and didn’t notice the difference. So that opens up a whole new avenue for tagliatelle dishes and raviolis. Once the recipe database is there you can build from that.”
Teague has become so well versed in free-from cooking that he often appears at trade shows and talks about the switch-over.
“I always say, if you source good meat, veg and fruit, it’s all dairy- and gluten-free anyway, then it’s only the things you add in that need looking at.”
Ingredients and sourcing remain key to Indigo, with high quality suppliers and provenance mentioned on almost every dish description.
“I have two lads going off to Jimmy Butler’s pork farm next week and we had 20 of them out foraging last week in Somerset and four others at the Rhug Estate.
“We get our guys out there to learn and research, and it’s great to have the backing of the hotel to do that.”
ENEKO AT ONE ALDWYCH
With its own entrance showing just the lip of a descending staircase, Eneko at One Aldwych has more than a hint of intrigue.
Its shadowy restaurant is illuminated by the rays from hanging lights bouncing off the shining copper stairway, while candles on individually carved tables make the surrounding leather banquettes glow.
All made from Basque materials and hand-picked by Eneko, the front of house décor is set up to host groups of people – there aren’t many tables of two – the Basque, shared dining experience.
Eneko Atxa is the man behind Azurmendi in Bilbao, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant voted no. 16 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Born and bred in the Basque region of Spain, Eneko is immensely proud of his local cuisine. His London debut, Eneko at One Aldwych offers a simpler, more relaxed menu, which is deeply rooted in traditional Basque cooking.
The open kitchen shows off his team, including female head chef Edurne Martín Delgado, who has worked closely with Eneko since 2006, as well as a kitchen team that have each trained under Eneko in the kitchens of Azurmendi.
The wine bar features a carefully crafted all-Spanish wine list with wines exclusive to Eneko at One Aldwych, including four creations by Eneko and his uncle Gorka using local grape varietals at their winery Gorka Izagirre in Bilbao.
The menu offers dishes you would find on a traditional Basque menu, mixed with those that are clearly an in-house adaptation.
The suckling pig tempura starter offers the traditional slow-cooked pork shoulder in soft batter, while here it is served with a smoking bacon sauce, while the Cerdito Caliente “hot hog” offers a mix with the classic Iberico ham, in a Basque muffin and paired with a mushroom duxelles.
Elsewhere on the starters the egg yolks tempura and beetroot tartare with pickled red onion offer further playful flavour combinations and not a little intrigue. Meanwhile, the homemade bread can be spread with basil and chive butter mixed at the table.
In the main courses the Txipirones en su Tinta is the standout Basque-influenced dish, and not just because of the spelling.
Squid that have been cooked in white wine with garlic and vegetables and served in an inky gravy makes for a fascinating dish.
The slow-cooked oxtail with mushroom emulsion works perfectly with the creamy mash potato and stuffed piquillo pepper side dishes.
All of the mains dishes serve as a course in their own right, but they are also easy to be broken up and shared among friends, as are the desserts.
The trendy salted caramel mousse with cookie crumble and sheep’s milk ice cream, or light peanut sponge cake with dark chocolate ice cream are the light alternatives to the more traditional torrija – Basque vanilla sponge with caramel crumble ice cream.
The whole experience at Eneko is exactly the tye of concept that is taking hotel F&B dining to another level. It is a destination in its own right, and while a big part of drawing people to the hotel itself, it has the creation and pulling power to make people make a special journey without having to book in an overnight stay.
However, for those who do venture back upstairs after their meal at Eneko, use the darkened, hidden passage down the side of the theatre kitchen – it feels like the special secret entrance!
While high ceilinged, spacious and populated by over-sized sculptures, the Lobby Bar has no sense of vacuum. In fact, by gathering in the atmosphere from the mezzanine Indigo restaurant while live music plays and staff rush around, the Lobby is transformed into a stylish and contemporary space that draws you in and makes time disappear.
Named one of the top five hotel bars in the world by The Sunday Telegraph, and hailed by the London Evening Standard, the Lobby has a team of mixologists overseen by bar manager Pedro Paulo, whose remit is to execute the new Showtime Cocktail menu, which celebrates the passion and drama of London’s great theatre productions.
For example the Three Reigns, inspired by King Lear, offers a golden concoction served in a globe-etched beaker filled with Plymouth Gin, Italicus Bergamot, elderflower cordial, rooibos tea, peach bitters and the house Lallier champagne, which can be paired with spiced lamb tortilla wrap and mint yoghurt – as decreed by Teague.
The Mediterranean Macbeth, inspired by the play of the same name, is made from Botanist Islay dry gin, rosemary syrup, Campari, fresh lemon juice and Lallier champagne; slices of parmesan cheese add a bitter twist flavour combination. Again, guests are encouraged to pair it with a snack of John Ross smoked salmon, crème fraîche and buckwheat blini.
Afternoon tea is a big affair at One Aldwych, with some 150 covers turning over on a Saturday and a more than satisfactory 80 during weekdays.
Being a stone’s throw from the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, where it has residency, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory offers the inspiration for the service.
Menus featuring the famous characters offer traditional sandwiches – some with a sweet twist such as coronation chicken served in a brioche bun – like smoked salmon and herb crème fraîche, as well as other treats including homemade candyfloss, chocolate caramel milk, and a golden egg filled with vanilla cheesecake and mango.
Look out for the Cocktail Charlie – Dalmore whisky mixed with Merlet Soeurs Cerises cherry liqueur, chocolate bitters, grapefruit juice and cherry syrup. Topped with champagne.
There is a wide range of loose-leafed tea available, too, of course.