RUSSELL NORMAN was the former operations director at Caprice Holdings, where he launched concepts such as the Ivy Club with Mark Hix, chef director at the time. He left in 2008 to set up Polpo, a Venetian bacaro, which serves small Italian plates in an informal setting. Following Polpo’s success (which was recently named 25th best restaurant in UK), he’s gone on to open Polpetto, da Polpo and Spuntino, an American diner, all in just two years (along with his partner Richard Beatty). Mishkin’s is his fifth restaurant and will open on 21 November.
WAS IT DIFFICULT OPENING POLPO IN A RECESSION?
Lots of people lost their jobs so I don’t take it lightly, but it was the best thing for my little company. When the recession hit I was at Caprice Holdings, and the job parameters altered. It became more about looking after the existing sites and less about project development. I wanted to be realising concepts, and I thought, if I can’t do it for my employers, maybe I can do it for myself. I was going from one end of the spectrum at Caprice to the very opposite and [created] a restaurant that would be very relevant in a recession: stripped back, bare bricks, no tablecloths, very inexpensive, great value: all of the things that I’ve always loved about those downtown scruffy joints in New York. They didn’t really exist in London; they do in New York.
COULD THE CONCEPT HAVE BEEN ANYTHING? DID IT HAVE TO BE A VENETIAN BACARO?
It could have been anything. In fact the two ideas came separately – the idea for a downtown, relaxed neighbourhood joint was one thing. Then, I got really into Venice – and enjoyed those wine bars where you stood up and had a few glasses of wine and pointed at the food in front of you [cicheti]. My idea initially was to have a proper bacaro, no chairs, no tables, but I still don’t think London’s ready for that. Polpo was a combination of two cities – the cool relaxed vibe of New York, and the small plate dining that I love from Venice.
HOW HAS POLPO CHANGED THE WAY THAT LONDON EATS?
There weren’t any little places like Polpo and Spuntino, which were relatively inexpensive and launched on a shoestring. Polpo helped people realise that they could [launch these restaurants too] if they had a good concept, a good idea of location, didn’t make things too complicated, stuck to what they knew and what they were good at.
WHY DO YOU LIKE SOHO AS A LOCATION?
With Spuntino [his American diner] it was the last opportunity to get a restaurant site in a part of Soho that was disappearing. It’s flanked on all sides by porn shops, peep shows, clip joints, drugs being sold on the streets – it’s just real genuine seedy Soho. As you sit in Spuntino, you see three signs: “DVD XXX” in neon, “peep show £2” in red light, and “live girls”. That view of those three signs are really important. That’s the identity of Spuntino.
TELL ME ABOUT MISHKIN’S, YOUR NEW JEWISH DELI
I’m always using the words “sort of” in front of it because it’s not kosher, and it’s not a traditional Jewish restaurant. It’s a sort of sexy, fun version of a Jewish deli. There’s a lot of East London “caff” in it and that strong Jewish tradition around Whitechapel and Bethnal Green that’s pretty much disappeared. It won’t all be matzo ball soup, lox bagels and salt-beef sandwiches, we’re definitely having fun with the menu as well. We’ll have cod cheek popcorn: cod cheeks – the size and shape of scallops – dipped in tempura-like light batter, then fried. And there will be great cocktails – we’re going back to the thirties and forties to look at gin cocktails that were very popular in this country.
DO YOU THINK NIGELLA LAWSON WOULD ENJOY YOUR “SORT OF” JEWISH DELI?
Well, I hope so. She’s been to Polpo. I’ve seen her there, at least once, if not more. But after doing a bit of research and speaking to well known Jews, they’ve asked the same question – will you be doing pork? And I’ve said – well, would you like us to do pork? And they’ve all said the same thing: “oh yeah” [he nods vigorously].
YOU DON’T OPERATE RESERVATIONS AT YOUR RESTAURANTS [EXCEPT AT POLPETTO]. HOW ARE YOU FINDING THAT?
Everyone says – these no reservation places, you have to go at really crap times. But, I love crap times. My favourite time to eat is midday. And my favourite time to eat supper is six o’clock. I couldn’t be happier eating early for lunch and early for supper.
WHERE ELSE IS EXCITING IN LONDON AT THE MOMENT?
I really like Brawn out in Columbia Road Market. Everyone loves the original [Terroirs], but I think Brawn is a far better restaurant. Morito, which is Moro’s baby sister next door, and Koya on Frith Street are also huge favourites. Really simple, delicious, freshly made udon noodles. Fantastic. And I like what the guys have done up at Riding House Cafe.
WHAT’S UN-EXCITING YOU?
I’m going to say something quite controversial – I’m a bit bored with Italian small plates now [laughs]. So many other people seem to be doing it now as well.
ZIZZI, FOR ONE
Tell me about it, I know I know. It’s so upsetting! And I’m going to put my neck on the line here – the thing that I’m not interested in trying are all of the new steak houses that are coming up. With one very obvious exception – Hawksmoor, Guildhall. I think there is only so much steak you can have. You’ve got 34 from Caprice Holdings – a steakhouse, Wolfgang Puck – a steakhouse. I’m much more interested in small places, like Duck Soup, Brawn, Morito, I think they’re much more interesting.
HAVE YOU GOT YOUR EYE ON YOUR NEXT RESTAURANT?
What, after Mishkin’s? Steady on, it’s not even built yet!