It seems fitting that Bonhams restaurant should be housed in an auctioneers, a place that solely exists for those in the know to find hidden gems. The venue makes sense: the airy, understated room, which overlooks the evocatively named “Haunch of Venison Yard”, is the ideal location for prospective clients to be lunched by auction staff before, after, or even instead of a bidding.
The restaurant, under head chef Tom Kemble, gained a Michelin star six months after quietly opening in February 2015. Kemble’s History of Art degree and experience at ingredient-led restaurants Hedone and Fäviken seemed to make him the best man for the job with a menu that does not betray itself to modish whims. There is little, if anything by way of smoke and mirrors here; instead the kitchen delivers clean, quality cooking – some even say the finest in the capital.
Understandably, there is a degree of synergy between the auctioneers’ wine department, led by Richard Harvey MW, and the restaurant’s head sommelier, Charlotte Edgecombe. The Vintners’ Cup winner (awarded for the highest mark in the WSET Diploma), like Kemble, did not have sights set on the industry (she studied media arts) until she “got absorbed in learning about and tasting wine analytically on holiday in Bordeaux”.
After working in wine retail at Waitrose for around four years, Edgecombe joined the team at Bibendum as a junior sommelier where she “got her first taste of hospitality”, working her way up to the position of head sommelier before leaving in 2013. This experience, she says, “got [her] hooked: to see the first reactions from customers trying a wine was amazing”.
We briefly discuss the increase of tea appreciation in the UK; after Bibendum, Edgecombe worked for the next year or so as a tea buyer for Newby in order to “use [her] palate in a different way”. She tells me that there is now more consumer interest other than in English breakfast and Earl Grey, with the subtleties of white and green teas being “more elegant and refined”. I’m also reminded that tea and food pairings are finding their way into the industry at the likes of London’s Gauthier Soho and Eleven Madison Park in New York, suggesting this is a field in which there is enormous potential.
Bonhams’s wine list has garnered much acclaim from critics and oenophiles, including Andy Hayler, Jay Rayner and Tim Atkin MW. Two Enomatic machines allow for a good selection by the glass and an average bottle mark up of almost two and a half times the retail price (getting yet fairer moving up the list) allows a guest’s spend to go further and for more interesting pairings to be had. As such, the most important skill a sommelier needs, Edgecombe suggests, is being able to read your customer; finding out what they tend to like and suggesting something new.
Although becoming less common, we agree that the days of the old school, somewhat sinister sommelier is numbered. “If customers feel a wine is corked, you do not make a point of it – you just change it for something else. You shouldn’t overcorrect.” At CODE we have discussed the recent increase in women as sommeliers, but it is something I’m told that actually applies across the wine trade in general, from writers to buyers and producers.
On a similar topic, we touch on the looming recruitment difficulties that are currently daring to ruin the industry, although Edgecombe does not seem to feel that it’s a big problem or, indeed, that staff turnover is ever going to change. “So many people come here on a temporary basis – the best thing employers can do is offer as much training as possible”.
Bonhams has recently only been open at lunchtimes during the week, although it now runs a “supper club” (in effect, a set menu) on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I ask Edgecombe if these relatively sociable hours for the industry permit her to try wine offerings from colleagues in neighbouring restaurants. “Definitely. There are some interesting things available at 28-50 in Marylebone, as well as Andrew Edmunds and Covent Garden’s 10 Cases.”
Edgecombe and Kemble, not to mention the restaurant itself, are clearly of that hackneyed phrase “ones to watch”. At just over a year open, Bonhams has done what few restaurants set out to achieve in over a much longer period – the menu and list evolving each season. But like any hidden gem, it will not be around forever. Best to get your bid in early.
7 Haunch of Venison Yard
London, W1K 5ES