Tales of the unexpected

Henrietta is the latest restaurant to flourish under star chef Ollie Dabbous. Reyhaan Day finds out why he wanted to take his new opening in a different direction

I’m sitting across from one of the country’s most revered young chefs in the brightly-lit room of Henrietta – the restaurant at the Experimental Group’s Henrietta Hotel. Dried flowers make for wholesome design details, with gold and copper fittings reflecting warm wood and colourful cushions.

It’s an artfully-designed space, and one that has clearly been carefully considered. It isn’t exactly what you would expect from Ollie Dabbous, whose eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant was a masterclass in stripped back décor – though not intentionally so. “The décor for Dabbous was based on a lack of budget, so we had to go with what we had, which was concrete and brick,” says the chef, who recently closed the restaurant after five years garnering acclaim from diners and critics alike. “I loved the contrast between the organic, feminine food and the quite brutal surroundings. But I think Henrietta has got a lovely homeliness to it. It’s got a distinct femininity, which is the complete opposite of the urban look of Dabbous. When you’re away from home and you’re staying here, it’s nice to have that softness.”

The design of Henrietta was spearheaded by Dorothée Meilichzon, who has brought a feminine edge to the hotel, which is the brainchild of Experimental Group’s Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros, Oliver Bon and Xavier Padovani. They saw a connection between Ollie’s cooking and their vision for the hotel. “They’re an independent company, so it makes it easier for a collaboration to come to fruition,” says Ollie. “There are no boardrooms and bureaucracy to wade through.”

During his time at Dabbous, the chef became known for his delicate dishes, all showcasing a deftness of touch and seasonal, sometimes foraged, ingredients. Here, Ollie has created a menu that is accessible throughout the day. “With this place, it’s a hotel and it’s in Covent Garden. The menu needed to be a little bit more direct and accommodating. Dabbous was probably a bit more destination, so we could be more esoteric,” says the chef.

“Here, there is steak and chips and madeleines on the menu; but it’s all done exceptionally well. I’m proud to serve these dishes. It’s nice to be doing something distinctly different to Dabbous, and also to have a more diverse dining room. In some parts of London, you get a very homogenous crowd.”

While the menu at Henrietta is more approachable than the ‘cooking as art’ offering at Dabbous – Henrietta’s menu features lovingly-topped grilled flatbreads, intricate fish dishes and heartier meat dishes – the dedication to produce is clearly very much paramount, making the move to Henrietta not too large a leap. “The Experimental guys mentioned the influence of horticulture and flowers. The food we do is quite verdant and fruit and vegetable based; and obviously being close to what was originally a fruit and veg market in Covent Garden, it felt quite serendipitous.”

It’s serendipitous also that the opening of Henrietta comes between the closure of his first venture, and his upcoming second restaurant, which opens early next year. “A lot of people were surprised when we shut Dabbous; but I think they’ll understand why I did it when the next one opens.”

Dabbous was a smash when it opened in Fitzrovia in 2012. It received a rare five-star review from Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler, alongside a plethora of other industry experts. “I was completely surprised. I brought in my pots and pans from home to save money in the kitchen; so it was surreal rapidly running out of the little funds that we had, to suddenly having that praise; and also the demand that came with that created an exclusivity, because the demand far outweighed the supply we could give in terms of the number of tables or covers,” says Ollie, equally amazed and proud. “We never anticipated it would be an exclusive restaurant. We were very democratic with our pricing, our uniforms, our playlists – the lack of fuss.”

What does he think it was about Dabbous that resonated with London’s food lovers? “Before we opened, there were places that were either buzzy, cool and fun – but the food would be over-expensive and underwhelming; or it would be very posh and smart, where the food was great but you wouldn’t necessarily have a fun night. But there’s no reason why you can’t combine the best bits of both – it felt obvious, not just to me, but also to chefs, front of house and people in the industry of a similar age,” he says. “I think we were the right thing at the right time.”

Earlier this year, it was the right time to close Dabbous. “Because we set up on a shoestring, we were always a bit under-resourced for the job in hand. I didn’t think we’d be as busy as we were. It was always a stretch keeping the quality I wanted with the space, the kitchen and the covers.” Ollie and his team searched for a larger site for a couple of years before taking the decision to close. “Because we were a new, small, independent company, we would be outbid by other sites. It was frustrating.” Soon, he had secured another site and taken on Henrietta – and decided that for the sake of quality, it was best to scale down. “Rather than run around and never fully be satisfied with each, we decided to close Dabbous and move the team across, so it would be manageable to a standard I want.” He says that he doesn’t want to spread his focus too thin. “For me, two or three restaurants are enough. For the level of control that I like, I’d feel like I would be diluting it otherwise.”

Ollie is relishing running a kitchen with a more relaxed approach to cooking. “I think a change of scenery is really healthy – and it’s nice having a bit of respite. I was absolutely knackered after we shut Dabbous. I feel healthier than I have for about six years!” He is clear that diners should see his work at Dabbous and Henrietta as entirely separate. “Henrietta is not trying to be a derivation of Dabbous, so I hope people don’t compare them. I really enjoy that diversity – it doesn’t always have to be fine dining. This place has gone really well and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t feel like work.”

Perhaps that is due to the fact that Ollie lives around the corner from Henrietta – meaning a little more time to explore the area’s burgeoning cultural scene. “The area’s getting better and better – I say that as a local. Petersham Nurseries is opening a place on King Street, and Mariage Frères, which does amazing teas, are there too. Every Sunday I’ll be having coffee and cake at the Boulangerie at Balthazar, and I also really like Rules. A lot more people probably know about it than have been, but I’d definitely tell any Londoner that hasn’t been to go.”

The area has really smartened up. It’s got a nice vibe. You’ve got a nice mix between places that are more relaxed and some fancier options. It’s nice to be part of that.”

14-15 Henrietta Street