September 2004

Holland Park via Fiji and Romsey

The Belvedere is under new management, and it's looking great. We went to interview Head Chef Billy Reid and Manageress Julie Blay

'One of the great things about working with Jimmy and Marco is that things always evolve.' Head Chef of The Belvedere, Billy Reid, is talking about the restaurant's interior but he might as well be talking about the relationship between Jimmy Lahoud and Marco Pierre White who together have been responsible for much that has been exciting and fresh in London restaurants in the last ten years.

We're sitting in the bar area of The Belvedere, a restaurant in the handsome surrounding of Holland Park House. Billy has been joined by the restaurant manager Julie Blay , his long time partner and soon to be his wife. They make a distinctive couple, Billy with his broad Lancashire accent 'All the lads here take the piss out of me because I tell them the best things come from Lancashire,' he laughs. 'But they do!' and Julie whose Fulham accent and style conceals only a slight hint of her Australian nationality. They make a formidable team - there's a steel core to both of them which is presumably one of the reasons Jimmy Lahoud asked them in May to leave what they were doing and come and run the Belvedere. Because although Marco's name is on the door, 'and he pops in to see us fairly regularly,' says Billy, it is after some divisions in the empire, now very much Jimmy's restaurant to run as he sees fit.

And he saw fit to pull in Billy and Julie. Both had successful careers. Billy began at the Ritz and was for many years Executive Chef at L'Escargot where Julie worked out front as General Manager. Later Billy went on to work at the Vineyard where he maintained their Michelin star. Then one day they both believed a change was in order. Says Billy, 'we decided in September 2002 that we wanted to tour the world and by May we were off. '

So was this a voyage of culinary discovery? I ask, all prepared for some smooth talk about discovering new flavours, new techniques blah blah blah. 'A gastro tour!' Billy spits out like it's a major insult. 'No, not at all. We just wanted a break.' 'We took three months in Americas , then Fiji , Australia , Bali and Thailand and then Romsey, ' explains Julie. Romsey? 'Yes we came back after a year and opened a Gastro Pub in Romsey called the 3 Tuns and then we went to Marlborough to run a restaurant called 2 Excess. Then Jimmy called us up and after a few weeks of discussions we came here. Sadly 2 Excess has since closed down,' she smiles, exposing a bit of that hard steel core. I get the impression this is not entirely unwelcome news to either of them.

The first weeks at Belvedere were extra hard work because of the travelling. 'It's only sixty miles from here to where we were living, but every day? Seven days a week? It was too much so we now have a flat near here,' Billy explains. They certainly have put some major effort in. The room is grand, a real wow! factor but avoids being stuffy or too opulent. Partly that's down to its seemingly random staircases, balconies and a patio looking out onto Holland Park .

The other reason is the food. Billy has definite ideas about what to serve here and its not classic French cuisine. He explains the philosophy. 'I think that what Jimmy found exciting was the idea of leaving this place as beautiful and ornate as it is, but to let people eat what they want, what makes them happy. We've structured the menu around thirty items, ideally forty, so that if you come here and you want to have a burger or veal with a morel jus, you can. We hope to attract everyone. For me the only two restaurants in London that share that idea and make it work are The Caprice and The Ivy. I went in The Caprice a few weeks back and I saw haddock and chips and that was exactly what I wanted to eat.'

'The one thing for sure is that whatever it is, it's cooked to perfection using the best ingredients and that it's consistent. If you come here again in three months and order the same dish because you loved it last time, it will be just as perfect, Consistency is so important to building regular customers.'

Favourites at The Belvedere include Calves liver and bacon 'Simply flies out the kitchen,' grins Billy. "I thought it would be popular but its exceeded expectation. Very English dish. Very London .' He ticks off some others 'The Big Thai Fish Sandwich, Black Pudding with Scallops. Pastas. Risottos. Haddock.' The Belvedere Burger and chips is a typical great meal. 'Home made, of course,' they point out. 'A good recipe and great meat'. I have to ask how the regular waiting staff dealt with serving burgers, though. 'Those that didn't like it? They've gone.' and they shake their heads. 'With the new staff we made it quite clear at their interviews what direction we were taking this place. We said you might think with our background that we're after Michelin Stars. We're not. We want a restaurant that's packed every night and which is being talked about. The staff now are right behind us'.

If you're looking for excellent Gastro Pub food in stylish surroundings, impeccably served and cooked and served by people with real talent and passion, take a walk in the Park.