saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Food of the Gods With... CERU
16th November 2016
Sometimes in theatre-land you grow tired of grabbing another sandwich to go and yearn for a restaurant that can turn you in time to have a proper meal and yet still comfortably make curtain up. When we found out about a new eatery launching in South Kensington that promised to turn a table in less than an hour, it instantly had our attention. We met husband and wife team Patricia and Barry Hilton at CERU's production kitchen and tried some of the dishes that will be served when their new restaurant opens to the public on 8th December 2016. Believe us, you are going to want to try all the dishes we did and then some!
We particularly loved the courgette, tahini and garlic fadi dip with flatbread (flavoursome and more-ish, appealing to carnivores and veggies alike, this is how vegetarian food should be) and the lamb with a rose petal tzatziki (the right side of pink and stunningly gorgeous). Picking out the spice combinations is hard, however as Patricia points out, there can be half a dozen different ones in each dish. This really isn't something to recreate at home! The best way to enjoy the menu is sharing three to four dishes each between friends, which is exactly what we did. (Well, actually we had more than that, but hey, the gods are greedy creatures.)
It's very easy to go meat-free and/or gluten-free at CERU, with so many scrumptious vegetable-based dishes. Whilst the meat is delicious, it takes an equal starring credit alongside all of the green stuff. We're not sure how good it actually is for your waistline when you eat as much as we did, but what struck us was how fresh and light everything tasted all the same. And as Patricia remarked, even the cocktails were healthier, with much less sugar than you would normally expect.
You can budget around £25 a head for a really good feed at dinnertime (there will be a cheaper express lunch available) with all cocktails sub-£10 and packing a real kick. The Cucumber Martini was our favourite: a twist on the classic martini with Tanqueray gin, fresh cucumber juice, lemon juice, mint and elderflower syrup. There are four other signature cocktails, if that doesn't tickle your fancy. Trouble in Paradise incidentally is lethal. You have been warned.
Tips at CERU go 100% to staff. With fair pay a big issue for our stagey readers, we were pleased to hear Barry mention that as a mere throwaway remark, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. As if we didn't like CERU enough already...
After stuffing ourselves with a wonderful variety of Levantine dishes including seafood, lamb and beef, we caught up properly with Barry about the inspiration behind CERU and what you can expect when it opens towards the end of 2016.
VFTG: You've run CERU as a pop-up restaurant before. Can you tell us about your journey in setting up a permanent home for CERU?
BH: Before I started CERU, I was one of the directors of a company called Yalla Yalla who do Lebanese street food. They were very active in the corporate market. It was my first real exposure to doing pop-ups. They did shipping container pop-ups, events, and I really saw the potential of providing another forum for your brand, rather than just sort of having a permanent restaurant and that's all you do.
I had a great time at Yalla Yalla but I kind of felt I knew enough about Lebanese food to try something else. I thought they did a really good job of what they were doing but it was a bit limiting; I wanted to have a greater palette to choose from. So I chose the whole of the Levante region as my playground and the inspiration was more or less to give people our interpretation of outsiders looking into what the flavour profile of the region can offer you.
Without being too pretentious about it, some of the stuff is great and some of it is not so great. And what we wanted to do is essentially come up with a menu that is quite accessible, very female-friendly. One of the things I learned when I was worked at Yalla Yalla was how strong the female customer base was and how loyal they were as well. They really got their market and I thought that was the right way to go as well. Really I just wanted to develop that further.
And I wanted to be somewhere that people could come and have different experiences. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, it's different. Every service is different. Too often these days, I struggle to find somewhere that I want to go back to. We eat out all the time and I wanted to have a menu that was varied enough to say, oh, we could go there, they do this, they do that...
VFTG: ...I haven't tried that yet.
BH: Exactly. That's what I was looking to create.
VFTG: And why South Kensington?
BH: South Kensington ticks lots of boxes for us. It's a residential area. It's got a young audience, it's centrally-located, all day trade, there's lots of yummy mummies who like to go out for a good, healthy breakfast in the morning, there's a lot going on in that area.
The thing is, with CERU, people are only going to come to us for an hour, an hour and a half at best. So we're usually part of somebody's evening or daytime experience and it's always good to be somewhere where there are other activities going on. South Ken: I've always wanted to open a couple of restaurants there if I'm honest. It's always been on our top 15 list of places to go to. We've tried twice already to get into South Kensington and it hasn't worked for various reasons. So when this opportunity came up, we pounced on it.
VFTG: Is your background in restaurant management?
BH: I actually started my life in the music industry and I had a career in music and then restaurants. The reason I got into restaurants was because I had crawled my way up the greasy pole in the music business and I'd eaten out in interesting restaurants all over the world. I was doing work in the Far East, in America, and I really got to enjoy going out and trying new foods. So that kind of inspired me. Towards the end of my career in my music business - it sounds like I'm 100-years-old, but I'm not - I just happened to meet somebody who liked one of my concepts.
Prior to launching CERU, Barry has been involved with Zuma, Black & Blue and Yalla Yalla. He also used to own a restaurant outside of London, where Patricia also worked. He may not have started in the food business, but he's certainly spent a lot of time in it and is very passionate about food.
BH: My key strengths are, I do a lot of project management work and I'm very customer-focused all the time. When I go out, I'm spending my money, I pay tax on it, I want to have a good time, I want to feel as if I've got value for money whether I'm spending £100 or £10, there should be no correlation. And that's really why I enjoy restaurants.
I always go into it with the customers' eyes. They're the most important people. I can't give you a good experience unless I've got good staff. I can't be in every restaurant 24 hours. I need good staff around me to provide the experience that I want to provide.
We asked the servers plenty of unfair questions about our dishes and to their credit, they handled them very well. When a chocolate pot with cherries and pistachios was politely declined, a nut-free version immediately appeared with plenty of smiles. Nothing was too much trouble. Clearly Barry has managed to find the type of lovely employees he says he needs in this line of work.
VFTG: Where did you find your chef? Had you worked together before?
BH: The original menu was done by a friend of mine, Tom Kime, who's an English chef who's now in Australia. And when we first came up with the idea of CERU, my business partner said, 'Who's going to be the head chef?' And I hadn't really thought about it. I said, I might give Tom a call. So I phoned Tom and I hadn't spoken to him for a few years. 'The line sounds really bad, Tom, where are you?' 'I'm in Australia.' 'I'll call you back when you get back.' 'No, I live here!'
'Well, the next question is going to sound a bit stupid then. I was going to ask you if you wanted to do a menu for me.' So he said he obviously did and he came up with the first CERU menu and then we've developed it further ourselves and our new chef joined us in May and he's added another dimension to it. So it's an evolving thing, but it's always meant to be an evolving thing, you have to start somewhere.
VFTG: Are a lot of dishes in the restaurant brand new or are they from the pop-ups you've previously run?
BH: The restaurant at South Kensington will be a version of CERU's greatest hits with about six or seven new dishes. During the course of the pop-ups, we've done a variety of the menu items. Some have been hugely popular, some we thought would be amazing, nobody bought them! You are constantly surprised in this business.
We then asked about the price point. Barry kindly obliged with a sneak preview of the menu and we all proceeded to do some (not that difficult) maths after a lot of cocktails and Lebanese wine (which made the adding up slightly harder). We eventually came to the conclusion that we had probably eaten about £25 worth of food per person, but had definitely overindulged with a whopping nine dishes between two rather than the six to eight recommended. None of us were sorry. The food was definitely worth the extra hour in the gym.
VFTG: Where did the name CERU come from? What does it mean?
BH: CERU is short for cerulean. We wanted a name that didn't mean anything that was quite nice and had swirly letters and wasn't offensive in another language. And was short! It was one of the colours we used, cerulean blue.
VFTG: How many covers will the restaurant serve?
BH: It's 43 covers inside and 10 covers outside. We've got a real mix of seating. Outside we have heated seats. Inside, we've got the communal table; a 3.5m table for 10 people, we have booths and then we have long banquettes. And then we have some seating for solo diners.
Kensington has the highest percentage of solo occupants in London. We've got five really nice stools in the windows, sash windows, a run of banquettes that have these Moroccan rugs that we bought from Marrakesh, and then we've got some really nice intimate booths in the middle of the room so you can see everything. You can see through the bar into the kitchen to the grill. It's quite an open experience.
VFTG: What was the most challenging aspect of launching the new restaurant?
BH: Most of the time it's been trying to keep it focussed to a set number of dishes. One of the hardest things has been to do a wine list, actually. Because there's not that many to choose from and they're all very expensive so it's actually been really hard to be honest, putting a wine list together. My business partner was adamant they all had to be Levantine.
VFTG: Remind us again: when do you open?
BH: We'll open to the public on 8th December 2016. We won't open for breakfast, but we'll open for dinner.
VFTG: Just in time for the Christmas rush.
BH: Exactly. I mean People always say it's the worst time of year to open, but it has to open sometime!
You can find their website here: http://cerurestaurants.com. To make an online booking for CERU through third party booking site Squaremeal, follow this link: http://www.squaremeal.co.uk/restaurant/ceru
(Yeah, you're welcome.) CERU will hold back tables for walk-ins every night, but we would recommend booking because it's bound to prove popular. See you there!