Going out for dinner is not always about being in the mood to celebrate. Restaurants also provide a safe place for life contemplation, escapism, or a need for comfort. So much so that when we choose where to eat, we often seek places that give us the feeling of being somewhere else – back in time to the food of our childhood or with a holiday state of mind. New restaurant Veneta then has its roots less in Venice the place, as Venice the feeling.
The first restaurant to open its doors in the newest West End foodie hot spot St James’s Market, Veneta is a beautiful two-tiered space nestled within a huge curving window overlooking a small square. It launched its take on Venetian dining in October to the sound of popping corks and a grand fanfare of popular acclaim – the reason for its immediate appeal is partly down to this being the fourth and latest venture by the highly respected Salt Yard Group (Salt Yard, Dehesa, Opera Tavern, Ember Yard) but we proffer some other reasons too.
“When we came to look at a beautiful space in St James’s back in 2012, it inspired this new concept - the idea of the Venetian Grand Café. All day dining, Veneta is somewhere to provide an excellent breakfast, a place to entertain clients, a drink with friends,” founder Simon Mullins explains their fresher, more expansive take on the Italian restaurant.
The menu too goes beyond the usual Italian affair of antipasti, primi, secondi to include the more specifically Venetian tradition of bar snacks, or cicchetti - think truffle arancini, smoked anchovies with butter, fried polenta with speck and fontina, figs wrapped in prosciutto – as well as charcuterie boards and crudo from the raw bar. But the food is only one step in its transformative appeal.
“We don’t normally do new buildings, but there’s something about this design – it feels like a ‘20s cruise ship; a contemporary take on streamlined nautical architecture.” Even from the outside, the restaurant’s design is a stage setting of Belle Époque grandeur and beauty. Giggling groups huddle on emerald green banquettes, sharing, dipping, guzzling. And waiters play a merry dance with silver trays and light steps over the dark parquet.
Between tables there are glass panels by Dutch artist Ramon Otting. Google him and you’ll find videos of lone figure striding out into the sea with a huge canvas in one hand a paintbrush in the other, letting the battling waves direct and diffuse each stroke; it’s a new level of combining art and landscape. For these pieces he’s worked with master craftsmen from the glassmaking capital and Venetian island Murano. Combining paint and glass, the panels were red and melted on sand of loosely formed grooves and divots - creating owing aquiline aquamarine recreations of Venice’s beloved sea-green lagoon.
The metal balustrade too is a work of sculpture; a repeat of wrought iron waves that rise from the entrance to one long curving balustrade, all traced and cut by water jets from hand drawings by the creator Matt Livsey Hammond. And three chandeliers descend from the ceiling - “like weeping willows.”
The bar though, with its display of frutti di mare artfully strewn over glimmering ice, is the real centrepiece. Its backlit shelves illuminate bottles, including a drink of such thirsty popularity it now owns it own shade of orange - Aperol orange - but joined by other and much more interesting Venetian quenchers. “We are especially importing smoked gin from Bordiga, a distillers founded in the 1888. And another exclusive with Jerry Thomas Project from Rome, who recreate prohibition-era bathtub gins with a deep infusion of herbs and spices.”
Mullins – along with business partner Sanja Morris – opened their inaugural restaurant-wine bar Salt Yard in reaction to experiences elsewhere in the world; “it was all about creating the feel of an Italian enoteca, or somewhere like Bar Jamon in New York that is brilliantly simple.” And then also because “when we came back, we thought why are all London’s wine bars all so fusty?” This time too, the couple’s passion comes from a sense of the exotic, or, dare we say, holiday. “We’re experimenting with adding aromatics directly – torching herbs and spices and freezing them in the ice in our gin and tonic. It’s an idea that was inspired by a visit to the hotel bars of Venice, like the Aman or Palazzo Gritti.” And they will be stocking particular ingredients specific to the lagoon; mantis prawns, or the soft-shelled moeche crabs, for example, who are caught in Venice during those two weeks in spring when these crustaceans shed their shells to transfer from a winter coat to a summer jacket (or vice versa in autumn). Traditionally, moeche crabs are left to wallow in beaten egg, soaking up the glutinous goodness, and then quickly dusted in our before the fryer – but we didn’t enquire whether such delicious torture is being in inflicted in their kitchen.
Food, drink, atmosphere – Veneta has all the right ingredients, but what is their big ambition for the place? “We want people to think ‘that was a wonderful experience, great service, and reasonable too’ – that’s our test.”
As Mullins takes us behind the scenes to meet chef director Ben Tish, he is reminded of another menu item: “And the frittelle – the Venetian doughnuts, but ours are made with saffron, cinnamon, star anise. That’s Venice: a city a oat, a ruler of the seas, a trader with the East, a builder of an empire.” Visit Veneta for celebration, comfort, and the wonderful feeling of a time before, better, tastier.