Some people work with the space they’re given, others make the space work for them. Samyukta Nair, the restaurateur behind the swiftly swelling LSL Capital empire — highlights so far: MiMi Mei Fair, Jamavar, Koyn — is the latter.
“I’m opening the Mayfair I want to go to, the one I want to visit,” she says, sat in at the middle table of her new South Audley Street bistro Socca. It’s normal for people to change where they live, but it’s unusual for people to change where they live.
Socca is Nair’s long-awaited project with Claude Bosi, the chef probably best known now for his two-star operation Bibendum, at the blue-glassed Michelin House on Fulham Road. The pair first shared plans publicly in January of last year; the opening was pitched for late summer, which blew in and out with no mention of what was happening.
“Well, we couldn’t change the ceiling because it’s Grade II-listed, and it was such an interesting room but quite layered, and we needed to open it out but still work within the current scheme of things. So that was…” Nair pauses, and gives a small smile, “Challenging. And then there was the kitchen…”
Socca, then, has taken its time. Set where the original red-awning of Richoux once was, it’s a French bistro in the Riviera style, about 85 covers, split between a main dining room and a bijou back room. Bosi’s kitchen — “I actually think it’s beautiful” says Nair — hums beneath, shifted from its old home upstairs. The look is what Nair characterises as “whimsical, playful, all by British artists”.
Anyone who’s been to MiMi might recognise the style, though this leans more toward Jean Cocteau in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat than Chinoiserie; the look is one of turquoise and soft blues, of yellows, of great white chandeliers and beautiful mosaic floors. It must have cost a packet: “This is just a little labour of love. So I think putting a cost to it is just… you know, something that… I’d rather not,” Nair replies. Nair is a carefully-worded sort, a person who likes things just so.
Between the dining rooms is a small bar. “Well, I live here, in Mayfair, and I want to be able to get a drink somewhere that’s not a hotel. I think it’s nice to have something quite residential.”
And so back it goes; Socca is the restaurant Nair has been wanting for herself. Is the rest of W1 letting her down? She demurs. There is a hot chocolate place here to die for. She loves the Connaught. “But I really don’t have a lot of places to go that are quite relaxed and beautiful and ambient… I mean, I can literally count them on my fingertips. I have my other restaurants but... I like to explore.”
What is she getting at? “I mean, in an Instagram era, where everything is Instagrammable, I think Socca is classic. And I prefer it like that. I think the food needs to be just — wholesome and when you walk out you say: that was a really good meal. The theatrics of it, I’m not so hot and bothered about. We’re just trying to build the places we want to go to and we want people to enjoy that.”
Instagrammable? Theatrical? In Mayfair? Well, there is the new Bacchanalia, complete with waiters in togas, an in-house grape-feeder and topless, towering Damien Hirst sculptures. Or there’s SexyFish, all marble, and glittering crocodiles scaling the walls. Ah ha. And the press outreaches have a tip-off to boot: in and among the descriptors is the instruction “move over Richard Caring (!)”.
Is he the rival, then? “Someone said to me: when you think of somewhat as your rival, you give them more power than they actually have. And I think that’s still true because I think that Mayfair is big enough for everybody, the audience is so different. I’m just trying to do what I know. I think it would be presumptions of me say that someone is my rival — because I think everyone brings a different skill set to the table.”
Another carefully-worded display of the delicate kind of diplomacy that Nair is expert at. But it is is clear enough: this is the kind of restaurant opening Mayfair hasn’t had in years — where for once, subtly, rather than spectacle, is the thing.
In an era where everything is Instagrammable, I think Socca is classic. And I prefer it like that
Bosi’s food looks set to underscore that. “I know I’ve got reputation for fine dining, for complex cooking, but my parents used to have bistros,” he says. Is that the inspiration behind the opening, then? He looks temporarily bewildered, before breaking into a grin. “I mean, I’m French. This accent, it cannot lie to you.”
The bistro intentions look real — and so Socca, despite being way behind schedule, is bang on trend; Racine is presently the hottest restaurant in town (“Henry is a phenomenal cook,” Bosi gushes), and old-school spots like Andrew Edmunds as busy as they’ve ever been.
Socca will open seven days a week, serving lunch and supper from a menu Bosi describes as “big, big-hearted, and generous”. How did he pull it together? Another grin. “When I decide to do a bistro, the first menu I did, I give it to my mother-in-law and I said to her: ‘would you feel happy to eat here?’ And she said: ‘I would love to.’ And I thought, ha, we are onto a winner.”
Dishes from an early menu lean into Nair’s idea that many diners “want to come somewhere they trust instantly; people will always go towards familiarity before slowly experiencing different things.”
Bosi is offering the likes of salad niçoise, snails, sole grilled and drenched in lemon and caper butter, slow-cooked lamb shoulder, beef cheeks, lamb chops with aubergine. But so too are there bits for those wanting a perhaps push a little more: a gratin of tripe and cuttlefish, and — perhaps the only one in London — grilled Andouillette, a kind of intestine sausage notorious for its intense scent, said to smell somewhere between death, decay, and defecation. It is a speciality of the Champagne region so adored that, since the Fifties, it has its own group of French critics dedicated to protecting its legacy. Bosi, then, is offering dining at different speeds (“But look, I’m not trying to challenge anyone. Challenging guests is something very used to do when I was 25. Now I’m 50… and it’s about having a good time.”)
Prices too, depend on what someone’s after: they estimate £88-a-head for a full meal, with mains in the £20s and £30s, but it can be bought down or pushed up with reasonable ease.
“This type of cooking is cooking with… where you don’t have to try. You just get the produce, you cook it properly, you put your love in it and you just enjoy it to eat. You know? That’s what it is,” he says. “If you just want a roast chicken and a half bottle of wine, then you can come and have that.” In fact, he sounds delighted at the idea. No chasing Michelin stars, then?
“Everything I do, I do it properly. If Michelin follow, great, if they don’t follow, no problem. I haven’t opened this to add another star to my collection. I don’t need to. I’m doing this one because I wanted to do a bistro and it was the right thing to do,” he says. “If we get one, great. But I don’t need that pressure in my life.”
The idea for them both, then, is to run a place that can become a local favourite, where guests returns week in, week out. The menu will change to reflect that demand, says Bosi. “I want a place people can come three, four times a month. I can’t have a place with a fixed menu because people get bored.”
Boredom is one thing very much not on the agenda. Instead, the pair talk like old friends about conviviality, joy, about seeing guests returning time and again. In fact, says Bosi, he plans to be one: “I have a fantastic team. This for me is about overseeing, not being in the kitchen all the time. I will help when I’m needed.”
Nair smiles again as she pictures the opening, slated for Valentine’s Day. “When the windows are uncovered, it’s very sunlit, it’s beautiful.”
She looks on dreamily for a moment, as if the Mayfair she is fashioning is pulling into focus before her. “It’s like I want a room where you can hear a chatter. A room where it rings with peels of laughter.”
Socca will open on February 14 at 41 South Audley Street, W1K 2PS. For more information, visit soccabistro.com