Dan Doherty, chef, Duck & Waffle

For four and a half years, Duck & Waffle has been, quite literally, high up on the list of must-go restaurants in London. Sitting pretty on the 40th floor of a skyscraper on Bishopsgate, it has wowed guests with its thoughtful take on traditional British cuisine mixed with European influences, available 24/7, as well as its spectacular views and thrilling 40 second lift ride to the top.

Now, the team behind Duck & Waffle is bringing a new concept to ground-level, with the launch of Duck & Waffle Local – a more accessible but no less ambitious version of what guests can experience sky high. Dan Doherty, chef director, has been invaluable in solidifying the restaurant’s reputation. He explains that with an increasing interest in more informal eating experiences, now was the right time to open the more casual off-shoot of the much-talked-about original. “I think there’s space for restaurants that are more destinations – but there’s also a massively expanding fast casual market,” he says. “I think we kind of wanted to dip our toe into both and mix the worlds together.”

As a location for this concept, St James’s Market was on point, says Dan. Although the idea had been formulated, it was imperative for the team to find the right site for the restaurant. “Shimon (Bokovza, founder and CEO of Samba Brands Management that operates Duck & Waffle and Sushisamba) and I had the idea of doing like this for a while – we’ve been looking at a lot of different areas to do this.” He says that when the St James’s Market site came up, he saw potential in its geography and the space itself. “It was a very interesting proposition because of the location and the fact it was a new development. The way it’s facing, up towards Piccadilly – hopefully it’s going to be the perfect space. I really believe that.”

Dan and Shimon’s priorities for Duck & Waffle Local were to make the price point more accessible, serve dishes quicker and in relaxed surroundings. A big difference is the ordering system; diners place their order at the counter, before being seated. “Though you order at the counter, the food still comes on beautiful, handmade crockery,” says Dan, noting that the efficient new system does not detract from the dining experience, and that this service offers those with little time to spare the ability to enjoy quality food in a restaurant atmosphere, without looking at their watches. Dishes are also available to take away – something that will surely appeal to local workers who are time-pressed yet crave well-prepared food, as well as guests looking to eat al fresco when the summer comes.

The menu, of course, is duck-heavy – unique in today’s restaurant scene, where gourmet chicken joints are ten-a-penny and there is a zeitgeist for less decadent, plant-based dishes. “Duck has great flavour, which is first and foremost the most important thing,” says Dan, explaining his passion for the game bird. “It’s very versatile – you think of soft confit that just melts in your mouth – and you can crisp it up and get really crispy duck; you can get the really rich, succulent and decadent breast; you’ve got the hearts, liver and all the offal too…” He believes that the perception of duck as a top-quality meat has influenced its scarcity on London menus. “I think the reason there hasn’t already been somewhere like this is that, in the past, the preconception about duck is that it’s elegant and refined. Roast duck a l’orange has always been that showstopper in a fancy restaurant, whereas actually, it doesn’t need to be like that. Hopefully we’re going to change that.”

The majority of the menu focuses on flavourful plates of expertly-cooked duck, served in a variety of ways. “The whole process of the development of the burger has been really interesting,” says Dan, explaining one of the new dishes he has devised for the St James’s site. “Duck is a difficult meat to translate to a burger, so we’ve really had to be creative with how we’re making it really juicy and ducky.” He says that with duck as the only unifying concept tying the menu together, it has allowed the kitchen team scope to explore and experiment. “The great thing about the theme being an ingredient rather than an area of the world means that you can go to town on everything else. Yes we serve duck – but it means that maybe there’ll be a Middle Eastern dish, a burger, maybe a rice-based dish. It’s great to have that mixed bag.” The chef says that despite duck playing the lead role, “half of the menu is going to be vegetables” – which, judging by Dan’s work at Bishopsgate, will be similarly well-executed. For the less squeamish, Dan is putting the spotlight on “beak to bum” eating, as he calls it – aiming to use everything the bird has to offer. “There’s obviously the prime cuts – the breast, the leg, minced duck and stuff like that which will be at the core; and then we’ll use the hearts, gizzards and other bits and bobs. It’s important that we use the whole animal.”

Similarly efficient is the drinks offering – with head of spirit and cocktail development, Rich Wood, introducing cocktails on tap. Dan describes them as “no messing about, straight over ice, ready to go.” As well as being another indicator of Duck & Waffle Local’s looser approach, forgoing the flairing that ‘mixologists’ make guests endure, it also means that drinkers will have their chosen cocktail as soon as they sit down. A couple of own-brand beers will also be available, plus a concise wine lines. “It’s great – not to overthought of, and not with a million bottles on it.” Again, he says this plays into modern Londoners’ preferred dining experience. “It’s meeting the needs of the modern day guest; they just want to come in and choose something, not be over-inundated with information.”

Though the St James’s restaurant is yet to open, I wonder what’s next for the group, which has taken its time in branching out across London. But according to Dan, the team is solely focused on making this opening a success. “The main plan is to get this restaurant open – they we’ll see where we’re at and what works. We’ve got lots of ideas for stuff we want to do, but all our time and energy at the moment is making sure that this place fulfils its potential.”

52 Haymarket

Emma Bengtsson and Henrik Ritzen, Aquavit London

Aquavit was one of the first restaurants announced for the St James’s Market development, and its arrival caused quite a stir amongst London’s food lovers. A pioneering New York City hotspot since 1987 thanks to its innovative modern Nordic dishes, Aquavit further cemented its reputation as one of the Big Apple’s finest when it was awarded a first Michelin star in 2013; and in 2015, former pastry chef Emma Bengtsson was appointed executive chef, and her work garnered a second star for the restaurant.

Now, the London restaurant – elegantly designed by Swedish-born Martin Brudnizki, responsible for Sexy Fish and Scott’s – is up and running, bringing a more relaxed version of the New York original to St James’s. Though there are differences between the two sites – notably the London restaurant’s larger size – Bengtsson is hopeful that Aquavit will soon become a St James’s institution. “You always take a risk when you do something new,” says the chef. “This restaurant is going in a different direction than New York, which I think is really good – it gives it an edge. The quality, the product, the techniques and the passion for it are all coming over, but it’s a whole new spin on it.” She believes that London has been ready for a restaurant like Aquavit for some time – and the more informal slant to the London outpost is perfectly suited to today’s dining scene. “I think this vibe suits London a lot. This is the kind of place that London really embraces and needs,” says the chef. “We’re coming to a point where we’re moving away from white tablecloths, and moving towards a warmer, more approachable climate.”

The key indicator of this approachability is the all-day dining menu, designed to honour the culinary traditions of Scandinavia. Bengtsson and Aquavit London’s head chef, Henrik Ritzén, are introducing Londoners to regional specialties such those featured on the smörgåsbord section of the menu, including shrimp skagen, glassblower herrings, gravadlax and vendace roe; starters like venison tartar with wild blueberries, lingonberries and juniper, and langoustines with smoked eel and crown dill; and mains including turbot with horseradish and brown nut butter and Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and pickled cucumber. Bengtsson’s famed New York signature, the Arctic Bird’s Nest, appears on the dessert menu too.

Both Bengtsson and Ritzén’s upbringings in Sweden helped shape their interest in cooking – and particularly the dedication to locally-sourced, simple produce. “Swedish cuisine is about going back to basics. It’s about being honest with what comes from nature and not overcomplicating things,” says Ritzén. He says that the emphasis is always placed on the ingredient – and preparing dishes at Aquavit involves letting the produce speak for itself. “It’s all about good quality ingredients, with as little as possible done with them. There’s salt, acidity or bitterness involved; but it’s very clean and it’s very approachable.” The chef thinks that this is an ethos that diners are increasingly buying into. “More and more people are craving that approach. They want to understand what they are eating.” Henrik gives the example of Aquavit’s turbot dish – fast becoming a classic in the area. “It’s basically just the perfect piece of turbot, poached and served with horseradish, brown butter and lemon. That’s it.”

While much of the menu features ingredients grown around the British Isles, Ritzén and Bengtsson are going back to the source for some of the more specialist Nordic produce required to bring the vision to life. “There are a few things we’ve had to get from Sweden, like the vendace roe and some of the berries unique to Scandinavia. Luckily there are a couple of good suppliers here that have things like Ättika, which is a high percentage distilled vinegar. It’s important for capturing the flavour for pickles,” says the chef.

Despite focusing on a cuisine in which Londoners are not fully educated, the team hopes that Aquavit will become a spot that customers will return to frequently, rather than as an occasional treat. “We had a big challenge because we don’t want to be a restaurant where people just come once and think it’s great – but then maybe only come again the following year,” explains Ritzén. “We want to have a restaurant that people come back to – at least once a month.”

1 Carlton Street

Sabrina Gidda, chef; Gabriel and Marcello Bernardi, owners, Bernardi’s

The sun makes a rare breakthrough as I wander up Seymour Street and into Bernardi’s, one of Marylebone’s recent culinary hotspots. It has only been open for 18 months, but in that time the restaurant has garnered glowing reviews from critics and the local community.

I settle into a window-side booth, joined by founders Gabriel and Marcello Bernardi and head chef Sabrina Gidda. The sun streams into the room briefly, before being obscured by clouds. It’s 3pm, and customers are enjoying coffee while working on laptops; some are nibbling on pizzettas. While dinner service takes on a buzzy restaurant vibe, the Bernardi’s team want to make the day-to-day atmosphere here very relaxed.

“I’m really keen on making the restaurant accessible as kind of a drop in,” says the infectiously irreverent Marcello. “We want it to be a place where you can use your laptop, hang out.” He says that they plan to remodel the front of the restaurant to bring a lounge feel to the space. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner are our bread and butter, but the eternal challenge for any restaurant is being approachable at different times of the day.”

Sabrina agrees. “Bernardi’s is sexy enough to come here for an occasion; but similarly, you can come in with your trainers and a t-shirt.” A big influence on Bernardi’s are Italian restaurants that evoke elegance while remaining egalitarian. “Rome has these beautiful restaurants, but somehow it feels like you can just pop in. It’s Italian casual sophistication.”

Sabrina is integral to the offering at Bernardi’s. An untrained chef, her dishes exemplify the Italian ethos of letting ingredients speak for themselves. “We take the best of the Italian and British seasons, put them together, and cook in a really free way,” she says, adding: “When you have three things like single estate extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian tomatoes and burrata from Puglia, you don’t need anything else.” From the get-go, the team eschewed “foams, dots, purees and flowers”; and no dish is served on anything other than a beautiful plate. “It’s not going to come to you on a slate or in a hat or in a shoe,” she says with a wry smile.

Despite an upbringing that celebrated food, as well as her “inherent greed”, Sabrina didn’t go straight into cooking. With an interest in women’s fashion, she enrolled on a year-long course in womenswear fashion design, before studying a degree in fashion PR and marketing. While her British Asian family were supportive of a fashion career, Sabrina says they didn’t quite understand the appeal of standing up in a kitchen for 18 hours a day. “When that epiphany came to me, I realised very quickly – as did my family – that cooking was the thing that I was supposed to be doing.”

Beginning her journey in gastropubs, Sabrina later worked for corporate clients, including Freshfields law firm in the City, where she ran three kitchens overseeing 14 chefs. “Being in the corporate environment was great – but it wasn’t accessible to your family or friends, or to anyone, really. If you can’t share your food with anyone, then that’s a bit limiting.” It was while working in corporate hospitality that the budding chef entered the prestigious Roux Scholarship, becoming a finalist twice – the only woman to do so in the two years she entered. She says that the recognition helped validate her career change. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, clearly proud of her achievement. “I learnt a lot about myself as a chef. That competition is held in very high esteem, so it was lovely.”

Then, through an acquaintance, she was introduced to the Bernardi brothers. Sabrina clicked with Gabriel and Marcello – and she immediately saw potential in the site. “I remember the first time they showed me the restaurant; when I walked through the door, there was just a feeling about it, that this was the kind of project I wanted to be involved with.” Marcello agrees. “Gabriel and I developed a simple seasonal Italian menu that had a little bit of an Antipodean edge to it to begin with – a bit of playfulness, not too traditional. Sabrina absolutely got it, instantly. She nailed it.”

While the dishes at Bernardi’s are rooted in Italian tradition, there is certainly an Australian slant thanks to the brothers’ influence, namely in the reverence for the ingredient. Their upbringing in Melbourne saw Gabriel and Marcello become immersed in food from a young age. “Cooking was a big part of growing up,” says Gabriel. “Our parents were very inventive and they loved Italian food. We had something different every night of the week.”

“We were lucky enough to have a house in south western Australia, where we would go in the summer,” says Marcello. “There’s a real appreciation for growing and eating food – and we did it in a typical Italian style: growing our own olives, making olive oil – not really what a normal Australian kid does!”

Though food and drink continued to be a passion for the brothers, they cut their teeth in other industries before entering the restaurant business. Gabriel owns the interior design company Coote & Bernardi, while Marcello comes from an advertising background. Both are employing their skills to create a well-rounded business model for Bernardi’s. “Historically, we’ve used both of our skills to put together our restaurants. My focus is very much on the marketing, creative angle; Gabriel is on the interior side of things.”

Bernardi’s is not their first restaurant project. It was when they acquired the site of what would be The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia that they realised they could unite their aesthetics-driven careers with their love of food. They helped to create a successful pub-restaurant – a process which lit a fire under the budding restaurateur duo. “It was very much learning as we go for a lot of it – but we had the skill set to back up the running of it.” After a series of openings that included The Pantechnicon Rooms and The Orange, both in Belgravia, Gabriel and Marcello reassessed. “For Bernardi’s, we had to look at the area, what we were going to do and what was going to resonate with people. We’d always wanted to do Italian food, but in the pubs, British was a natural fit.”

18 months on, and Bernardi’s’ dishes are hailed as some of the best Italian plates in London. “We’re building a collection of dishes that we know are absolute mega hits, which is really nice,” says Sabrina proudly. These include her rabbit ragu with tarragon gnocchi and pancetta pangrattato; ricotta gnudi (“now we keep the component part and rotate the garnish, because people absolutely love them”); and the pizzettas, which incorporate expertly chosen and unusual ingredients such as confit leek with Taleggio and Italian celery.

With so little time under their belt, it’s still early days for the team; but that doesn’t stop them from being ambitious, showing a desire to stand the test of time. “In the future, I hope Bernardi’s is an institution – the place people always come to as a default,” says Gabriel. As the sunlight breaks across the street and floods into the restaurant, you can picture it.

62 Seymour Street

David Muñoz, chef, StreetXO

StreetXO has been one of London’s most anticipated restaurant launches for at least two years. There were a number of reasons why the restaurant, which opened at the end of last year, has been on the tip of the food world’s salivating tongue; StreetXO is the sister restaurant to the gushingly-acclaimed Madrid hotspot, DiverXO. Opened to fanfare in 2007, DiverXO is the only three-Michelin star restaurant in the Spanish capital, and has been hailed as one of the most innovative eating experiences in the world. Its chef, creative visionary and founder, David Muñoz, was the youngest ever chef after Pierre Gagnaire to be awarded the coveted three stars, aged just 33; and to make the story even more succulent for gastronomes and the media, Muñoz appears a different breed to the old guard of Michelin chefs. Curved, tribalistic spikes twist from his earlobes and his hair is a closely buzzed mohawk; his press photos depict him as a culinary droog.

Descending from Old Burlington Street’s empty air into a clandestine cavern, StreetXO is nightclubby on first glance – angular seats, low lights and buzzing neon dominate the space. But the focal point is the open kitchen – vibrantly-lit, a cacophony of sound, smoke and sizzling pans; all tables have been positioned so diners can get a good view. The influence of Asia’s hawker markets is evident in the eye-burning neon, jam-crimson palette and the odd cart dotting the space, resting bottles and plates. A neon fish floats, suspended above the hot lights of the open kitchen, which is teeming with chefs putting spoons to their mouths – quizzical, concentrated expressions drifting across their faces. A straightjacket rests on the bar, waiting for its owner to slip into it.

StreetXO is no ordinary restaurant – and it’s certainly not typical of Mayfair. It’s a restaurant that aims to subvert expectations as to what constitutes ‘fine dining’ – now somewhat dirty words on London’s gastronomic scene, though Muñoz is happy to describe his latest venture in those terms. “This is a fine dining restaurant,” he says matter of factly, in enthusiastic English with a heavy Spanish lilt. “I wanted to make fine dining food, but redefine what ‘fine dining’ meant. Some people think that fine dining food has to be had within a comfortable experience.” He says that he wanted to challenge that idea with the decor, the music, and of course, the food. “StreetXO is aggressive – and I mean that in a good way. It’s like a rollercoaster. I thought London was missing something like that.” Muñoz realises, of course, that his penchant for irreverence and confounding norms is not to everyone’s taste. “Some people like it; some like it less. That’s normal when you’re making something unique, or something personal.”

The site was a blank canvas, which allowed the chef to let his imagination run wild when it came to the decor and atmosphere. “I want people to come here and feel like they’re not in Mayfair anymore. They are in David’s mind,” says Muñoz. Ultimately, though, the chef’s focus is on food; for Muñoz, the aesthetics are simply another way to create a fully-formed experience. “The most important thing is the food. Even if the decor is awful and the restaurant is in a bad location – if the food is amazing and unique, the people will go.” He notes that the goal is to create a totally unified offering, where each aspect of the restaurant complements the other. “Everything plays the same role. Everything is important. The food is crazy, so the decor and music have to match that – even the uniforms, with the guys in straightjackets. Everything must be on the same page.”

So what of the food, which has received such acclaim from those in the know? “My food is powerful, it’s intense, it’s aggressive; it’s like a gunshot,” he says, passion practically spewing from his lips. Muñoz says that ultimately, cooking is a form of expression, with influences from across the globe uniting to create something distinct. “The food at StreetXO is not really fusion,” he says, acknowledging the diverse ingredients and cooking methods evident on the menu. “We get inspiration from all over the world in terms of ingredients and cooking techniques – but at the end of the day, we are making something really different.”

Despite asserting that chefs are “not artists, but artisans”, it’s hard to tell the difference with Muñoz. His plates are considered, and are striking in their presentation; Pollock-esque dribbles and smears, delicately piled ingredients like miniature installations. For the chef, it’s all about playing with guests’ expectations. “Lots of these dishes will trick you, they will play with you. I love to surprise people. When something is fun, unique, a surprise and it’s delicious – that is perfection. This is the most emotion you can get out of eating.”

The menu makes you work. Names of dishes are stylised and lengthy, and descriptions of each can only hint at what will be served to you. Tandoori chicken wings, buried under a moss-like thicket of pickled red onion, trout caviar and katsuobushi are supremely tender and evoke Asian, Indian and European flavours in one bite; king crab with chipotle and paprika sauce and marinated soft-shell crab team up on a plate artfully dressed in a decadently rich butter-champagne emulsion and a long strand of spaghetti – made from sherry. Two dishes, Muñoz signatures, have been brought over from Spain: Pekinese dumplings with crunchy pig’s ear, aioli and pickles come placed on a sheet of paper liberally splattered with strawberry hoisin; and the steamed club sandwich featuring suckling pig, ricotta, quail egg and chilli mayonnaise turns a classic on its head.

Though the food offering at StreetXO is less elevated than at his original, three starred restaurant, it is this seeming fearlessness in creation that has made Muñoz one of the most celebrated chefs in Europe. Gaining those coveted three stars is the ultimate accolade and validation for a chef working at this level – but Muñoz tries to stay grounded. “When I got three Michelin stars, I was 33. I could have gone mad. Everyone was talking about DiverXO breaking rules, so the media went crazy with it,” he explains. Muñoz was wary of getting carried away with the acclaim, and remained focused on the food. “You have to be aiming for perfection all the time. But when you get there, you have to stay there,” he says, speaking like a man with first hand experience. “People’s expectations are really high.”

Muñoz acknowledges the positive impact the Michelin stars have had on his career. “It means a lot to me – the third star changed a lot of things for DiverXO, in a good way. I was never following the stars – but it was an important thing for the success of the restaurant.” Having already gained three stars, one would think there was little else to achieve for Muñoz; but above all else, he is driven by a passion for cooking, and showcasing his dishes in tailor-made environments such as DiverXO and StreetXO. For now, the focus is on Madrid and London. “We are not rushing. I want to improve London, make the restaurant better than it is now. I want people to be queueing all the time – for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. After that, I want to grow Madrid using everything that we have learnt in London.”

Currently, Muñoz is working between 14 and 18 hour days, seven days a week. “Sometimes I’m cooking in Madrid on Saturday morning, taking a plane to London for dinner service; two days in London, then back to Madrid and cooking straightaway. I don’t take any days off.” It must be an exhausting lifestyle – and Muñoz knows it won’t last forever. “I’m happy; this is my hobby, this is my passion. But I know I cannot keep going at this level forever – not with this pressure and stress.” He says that he wants to see out a number of ventures before cutting back on his professional responsibilities. “I’m 37 right now. I want to push at least six more ideas at this level. And then I want to take things easier. I don’t know what that means… but I would like to be a father at some point. You need time to have children.”

Only time will tell whether Muñoz’s cooking translates in London; but with creativity and confidence to spare, let alone the approval of the food world, you wouldn’t bet against it.

15 Old Burlington Street