Words Kirk Truman
Photography Si Melber
“Great food begins with the suppliers…”
When the Mandrake Hotel opened on Newman Street last September, it was the place that everybody was talking about. Entering through the long, dark corridor entrance, you are greeted by eccentric stylistic flourishes, surrealist design and hedonistic luxury; there’s even a stunning courtyard with its own hanging gardens and a greenhouse full of exotic plants. Founded by Rami Fustok, the Mandrake is a new breed of hotel in Fitzrovia, every bit as magical as its name would suggest, and at its heart is a new breed of restaurant: SERGE *et le phoque. Compared to the eclectic make-believe of its surroundings, the restaurant is a surprisingly understated and relaxed space, although it also boasts a stunning red lacquered private dining room that is a feast for the eyes.
SERGE is the new London outpost of French duo Frédéric Peneau and Charles Pelletier. Having opened their Michelin-starred restaurant of the same name in Hong Kong, this is their first overseas venture. Centre stage as I arrive at the restaurant is co-founder and interior designer Charles. Dressed to a tee, he’s full of charm and radiates intellect and enthusiasm from behind his rectangular glasses. It’s his strong entrepreneurial spirit which has guided SERGE from Hong Kong to London.
Also on hand to greet me is head chef/restauranteur Frédéric Peneau. Fred started his career at the Cafe Burq in Monmartre, later opening Le Chateaubriand, which was considered an industry benchmark in Paris and helped lead an evolution of the city’s restaurants. “Le Chateaubriand was a small bistro in Paris. Nothing posh really; it was a neighbourhood bistro but people would come from all over the world to dine there,” says Fred. He then headed East to Hong Kong to launch SERGE; within its first year of opening the Wan Chai market district restaurant had gained a Michelin star. No wonder Rami Fustok wanted to get Fred involved with his long-planned Fitzrovia hotel. “Rami had heard about me, and we agreed to meet. He asked me about myself and my work. I said to him that I don’t really like to talk about myself – instead I offered to cook for him a dinner,” Fred recalls. “So, I did. He loved what I cooked, and he told me about the project and becoming involved with the Mandrake Hotel. He told me straight: I want you!”
Fred explains to me that the food at SERGE begins with the suppliers (58 to be exact). “It’s all about getting the best we can get from the best people at the best time. I could just buy all of my vegetables from the same supplier, but what would be the point in that? I go to specific suppliers for specific ingredients. It’s about finding the best, not just settling for what is easily available.”
“It’s very focused. It’s not just about freshness, it’s about where, when and how,” he says. “You cook with your mouth – everybody should cook like that and only like that, you know? As a restaurant, we cook everything à la minute to ensure the freshness of the dish. Everything happens there and then. There are few restaurants in Britain that do this, and we are proud to count ourselves as one. For us, the menu is ongoing. It’s never finished; for us, it’s just the beginning of a story. My kitchen and my menu are reactive, to London and to our diners.”
Ingredients and menu are vital, then, but equally important, says Charles, is the dining experience itself. He believes that, in effect, the way you’re feeling will have an impact on how your food tastes. In the restaurant business a meal is easily turned tastes equal to that of your dining experience, which I’m delighted to say, at SERGE *et le phoque was on par. “The taste of the food reacts to the experience. Think about it like this: why should we have to put on evening dress to listen to classical music? Our dining experience is high-end, but it doesn’t mean it should be exclusive. We want SERGE to be enjoyed by diners from all walks of life,” he explains. “Dining is not just about eating, but also coming to a restaurant – it’s about the whole experience. And the taste of the food changes with the experience… I guess you could say we’re still working on that. Any good restaurant always should be!” he laughs.
At SERGE, every element of the meal – from the sourcing of ingredients and well-planned, modestly priced menu to the work of sommelier and the expertise of the waiters – helps ensure a social and culinary experience that is as unstuffy, relaxed and satisfying as possible. Fred and Charles hope that what they’ve achieved in their ever-evolving quest is a restaurant as reflective of contemporary London as the first SERGE is of Hong Kong: fantastic ingredients, a menu as diverse as our capital and a modern style of cooking in which no particular tradition dominates. It’s a winning combination… and one which your mouth will definitely understand.