Ben Tish and Simon Mullins, Salt Yard Group

Behind golden hoardings, the new St James’s Market has quietly risen out of the backwater between Regent Street St James’s and Haymarket. A 210,000 sq ft development of office space, retail and restaurants built around a flash central square, it is set to be a focal point in this district. While it is the local business community that will immediately benefit from the development, the hope is that the square will soon become a destination in its own right.

While the retail offering here expands on The Crown Estate’s vision to make St James’s a style hub, building on the arrival of Dover Street Market on Haymarket, it is the restaurants that are the big draw, and are what will ensure that this stretch of St James’s remains in the conscience of London’s spoilt food lovers.

So far, only a couple of the seven proposed restaurants have launched. Veneta was one of the first, opening in November. It is the fifth restaurant from Salt Yard Group – the hospitality company that helped kickstart London’s move towards egalitarian dining with the launch of its first site, Salt Yard in Fitzrovia. Offering expertly-prepared small plates in an informal space, that restaurant can now, some time later, be seen to have had an impact on the way Londoners now eat. “The small plates thing has obviously been going on for hundreds of years, but it’s really taken off since we started,” says Simon Mullins, founder of the group. “We were certainly one of the very first in London,” agrees executive chef Ben Tish. Simon continues, “Our most important thing is that we’re always serving up great food, with staff who know what they’re talking about and are passionate about what they do.”

It was while working for Spanish food importer Brindisa that Simon first decided to open a restaurant. He was initially researching an Italian concept with his partner Sanja Morris; but his time at Brindisa helped him “develop a real passion for Spanish food”, and the pair decided to shelve the idea for a purist Italian restaurant. “We came up with a hybrid, which was to combine Spanish and Italian in the form of an enoteca slash tapas bar.” After finding the site that would soon become Salt Yard, they refined their vision even further. “The venue came with a full kitchen and dining area – so it evolved into a fully-fledged restaurant.”

It is this marrying of Spanish and Italian regional cuisines that has become the group’s trademark – albeit executed with individuality at each site. As executive chef, Ben Tish, says, “They naturally have different vibes to each other because of the area, but with the same kind of service standards.”

Salt Yard opened over a decade ago. The years since have seen four more openings from the group: Dehesa on Kingly Street; Opera Tavern in Covent Garden; Ember Yard in the heart of Soho, on Berwick Street; and Veneta. While the group’s previous restaurants took inspiration from across both Italy and Spain, Veneta marks a change, in that it focuses solely on the culinary traditions of Venice – with Spain not at all represented. But according to Simon and Ben, it was the process of finding a site that dictated the restaurant’s concept.

“We looked at a site on Regent Street St James’s, which has now become Milos. We walked into the space – which is a huge, grand space. Ben said, ‘This place would be great for a Venetian grand café.'” Simon says that the idea stuck, though they didn’t take the space. “A little while later, we started to know more about the St James’s Market development and we really bought into the vision. Then we saw this particular unit – beautiful, big bay windows, tall ceilings. Veneta is a distilled version of the original idea.”

Simon and Ben looked to create a restaurant that would chime aesthetically with the rest of the area. “We felt that it needed to be something grand, because St James’s has this rich, royal heritage. Obviously Venice comes with lots of history and grandeur too, so we felt like it was a good fit.”

Immersing himself in the city’s famous food culture, Ben sought to look past the usual Venetian fare of cicchetti – instead focusing on its abundant fish and, of course, pasta. “One thing that stuck out for me was their focus on fish and seafood. There’s a lagoon there, and they have something called lagoon fish. It’s very specific to the region.” Ben says he was inspired by the sushi-like preparation of these fish. “Crudo – which is raw or lightly cured shellfish with lemon, rosemary and salt – is a big focus there. We wanted to recreate that here, so we introduced the raw bar downstairs.”

While the menu is extensive and covers everything from meats, fish and a section dedicated to fresh pasta dishes and risotto – to a gelato menu on top of the regular dessert menu (“Venice is renowned for sweet things”), it is the raw bar that seems to be making an impact at this early stage, with its fresh, healthy options. “From the feedback we’ve had already, the raw bar is a real hit – in particular this dish which is a crab cocktail served in a spider crab shell, on a special crab plate we designed. That’s been one of those dishes that people have been talking about; it’s been posted a lot on Instagram.” Another difference Veneta brings to the group is the introduction of breakfast, which is available throughout the week; a reflection of the needs of St James’s business community.

Though still early days for Veneta, the Salt Yard Group has more openings on the horizon – even if the concepts are not yet fully formed. “We’re always in discussion with landlords and agents on sites. We haven’t signed anything yet, but we’re looking to do something else next year,” says Simon. “We’ll continue to grow – but for us, it’s always been about taking the right opportunity – only when we’re ready for it – and making sure we absolutely get it right. Going forward, it’ll be the same. Let’s call it considered growth.”

3 Norris Street, St James’s Market

As featured in Mayfair Times’ January 17 edition.

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