'No faff or fuss or gimmicks' - Masterchef judge Robin Gill opens his latest venture
Fads, faff and fuss are off the menu in Robin Gill's newest restaurant. The Dublin-born chef and Masterchef judge has launched another venture in London, where timeless dishes are the order of the day, writes Katy McGuinness
On opening night last month, Robin Gill's bright yellow socks matched the awnings over the terrace of his new London restaurant, Darby's, and it didn't appear to be a coincidence - everything about his latest venture has been planned meticulously.
But Darby's was nearly called something completely different.
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"Originally I wanted to name it Earth, Grain and Fire," says Robin. "I was thinking 'earth' for the farm where we grow our vegetables, 'grain' for the heritage grains that we use in our bread, and 'fire' for the huge grill where we are going to be cooking some of our dishes. Plus I love music, especially classic rock.
"But I was with friends one evening having a few drinks and they weren't enthusiastic. In fact, they said that it was a terrible name.
"I was a bit lost, feeling quite vulnerable and scared about opening such a big place, and I started thinking about some of the great restaurants that I went to with my dad in New York..."
Robin's dad was the late Earl Gill, the legendary Irish jazz musician.
"My dad's time was in New York and Chicago in the '50s and '60s," says Robin. "He had impeccable taste, and he was a great person for not going with fads, he didn't like faff and fuss or gimmicks. I could almost imagine him saying: 'Earth, grain and fire? What are you thinking?'
"So I started thinking about restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Keith McNally in New York, who are behind Union Square and Balthazar, fantastic places that are institutions in the way that they feel familiar and fun and celebratory and won't go out of date in a few years. I realised then that I wanted to do something timeless in terms of the way the restaurant looked and the food that it would serve."
Robin decided to name the restaurant after his father, who acquired the nickname Darby in the US around the time of the release of the film, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
On opening night, the celebrities include a heavily pregnant Myleene Klass, happy to pose for the paparazzi, Michel Roux and - it seems - just about every Irish person in London, along with friends and family over from Ireland. The hospitality is lavish, with plenty of champagne and cocktails, as well as pints of the black stuff for those who prefer. By way of soakage, there are Robin's trademark pickled vegetables and the hand-made charcuterie for which he is famous, along with a seemingly endless supply of oysters shucked to order by John Ward of Dooncastle in Connemara, which guests can choose to have with a classic mignonette or, more exotically, anointed with caviar oil.
You'll know Robin from his stints as a judge on the Irish version of Celebrity Masterchef, and you may have eaten his food or cooked from his book, Larder, published last year. He grew up in Glasthule, but has spent much of his career as a chef working outside Ireland in the UK and Italy, with Michelin-starred chefs including Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc. He even put in a stint at Noma, and for a while was collaborating on a project at Airfield in Dundrum.
Darby's is his fourth London restaurant, after The Dairy, The Counter and Sorella, all in Clapham and co-owned with his wife, Sarah. This is another 'south of the river' venture, located in Ballymore's huge Embassy Gardens development in Nine Elms, Vauxhall, and Robin certainly has his plate full with Darby's, a bigger, slicker and more ambitious endeavour than anything that has preceded it.
The view from Darby's terrace is of the huge cube that is the new American Embassy, designed by US architects, Kieran Timberlake. There are those who mourn the displacement of the embassy from Grosvenor Square, but the hope is that it - along with offices in the development occupied by Penguin Random House and Dorling Kindersley - will regenerate the area, which will eventually be linked via a new pedestrian bridge across the Thames to Pimlico.
A two-bedroom show apartment in the second phase of the development (the first is fully occupied) is decorated in a chic, understated style and costs £1.6m. (Robin says that his son, Ziggy (4), asked would they be living upstairs and was disappointed to find out that they wouldn't.) Most of the residents are millennials, according to Ballymore's Head of Communications, Hayleigh O'Farrell, no doubt attracted by the promise of the Sky Pool (currently under construction) which will link one building to another so that residents - or at least those who don't suffer from vertigo - will be able to swim from one building to another in a glass-bottomed pool 10 storeys above the ground, and avail of Darby's menu after they've finished their lengths.
Robin's involvement in Embassy Gardens was initially mooted four years ago when Hayleigh spotted an Instagram post of his.
"It was just a ham sandwich with piccalilli from The Counter, but something about it struck a chord with her," he says. "We are known for our neighbourhood restaurants and that's what Ballymore are trying to create here, a new neighbourhood. The first big meeting that I went to I brought along bread, our own butter and charcuterie to give them a sense of what I wanted to do. I think they were quite shocked.
"Two and a half years ago it started to take shape. The space for the restaurant was mapped out but literally it was a blank shell. I could see its potential and what it could be - and it's turned out exactly the way that I wanted it to."
From the outset, Robin wanted the bakery to be the heart and soul of the restaurant, front-facing rather than hidden away, and to have a 360-degree bar and an open kitchen.
"Initially, the architects and designers saw that I had worked in Noma and they were suggesting something with a Scandi vibe, all stone floors and concrete. But I think that's a fad, I wanted something timeless, thinking back to the grandeur of those NY restaurants that I went to with my dad and the ones that he used to tell me about, I had a real sense of them. I researched a lot online, too, trying to figure out what I could take from there that I could incorporate here."
Having opened their previous restaurants without backers, it was a whole new experience for Robin and Sarah to be working with a rake of consultants and designers.
"This has been a very different kettle of fish," he says. "I'd never had an acoustic consultant before but it was great to be able to consider that aspect properly.
"And I love the fact that design allows the bakery and the craft behind the butchery to be on show rather than hidden away. We have the best of stoves from Athanor in France - they flew us over and gave us lunch, I've never had that before. It's a beautiful kitchen - no matter where you are in it you can see what's going on everywhere and you're part of it, which is really nice."
In the same way that he was after a timeless feel in terms of décor, Robin says that the food at Darby's won't follow trends either.
"I'm not creating a fad, I want the food to be something you just don't mess with, really familiar, comfortable things done very well, with nowhere to hide. There won't be any poke bowls or whatever the latest thing is. We went back to basics with all our suppliers because we had the time to do it, to make sure we were getting the best shellfish and fish on the bone there is, and in most cases it turned out that we already had the best suppliers. Our oysters are coming mainly from Dooncastle and we'll have natives from Kelly's when they are in season. We'll have whole turbot served with the best seaweed from Connemara, we're using heritage British grains in our fresh pasta and going the extra mile on all our sourcing. Some of our steaks will come from Peter Hannan in Moira. Our pepper sauce for steak is made with the best green peppercorns you can buy and our mashed potato is going to be the absolute best, with an obscene amount of butter. 'Treat the ingredients with as much care as you can and try not to f**k it up', that's my motto."
Although Darby's is in London, Robin says that its culture is distinctly Irish.
"A lot of the Irish bars in the UK are absolutely awful, just tacky, serving bad pints, they really are not very nice. But there's been a great resurgence in Ireland of craft spirits and I want to showcase that around the bar, so we'll have Bertha's Revenge, Glendalough, Slane… we'll have a happy hour with a pint and half a dozen oysters for a tenner for the after-work crowd and live music at least once or twice a week, and a jazz brunch on Sunday. I think my dad would have liked that."