• Comptoir Blandford in Marylebone, London

Food

Q&A: Xavier Rousset

The co-founder of Blandford Comptoir on Italian vegetables, kind reviews and the secrets of longevity

Interview: Clare Finney

First Texture on Portman Street, then 28-50 on Marylebone Lane, now Blandford Comptoir on Blandford Street: it seems for you, there’s something about Marylebone...
Oh, I love the area here for sure and I recognise a lot of locals now. That’s the good thing about Marylebone as opposed to Knightsbridge or Mayfair: this is people’s home, it’s where they actually live. When I was looking for a place for this restaurant, I did look at other places because you have to, but I was mainly looking in Marylebone. I knew this site—it was Zoom before, which was very good—and as soon as I heard it was on sale I was like, yes. Let’s go and a have a look.

Four stars from Fay Maschler, nine out of 10 from Giles Coren, even gushing praise from Jay Rayner—did you expect such rave reviews?
I was shocked. I didn’t expect to do as well as that, to be honest, especially with Giles and Jay Rayner. Fay came three times and by the end I had a good feeling, but Jay can be pretty sarcastic! They have helped me out a lot: dinner is solid every night, and lunch is—well harder, but it always is. We are near the high street which helps and we are small, so we always have a good atmosphere. Small and busy sends out a good message.

You’re French and you’ve spent much of your working life in Britain. So what made you go for Mediterranean cuisine here?
I love it. I love eating in Italy. If you are looking for simple food and good ingredients, Italy is the place: even a slice of tomato with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is the most delicious thing. Of course, you have to get good ingredients and our head chef spent weeks in Italy looking at suppliers, getting samples, trying many different burratas and prawns and so on. Even the vegetables come from Italy. If our suppliers pick them one day, we will get them the following day.

When you first started, Texture was one restaurant. Now it’s a four-strong restaurant group. What made you decide to leave the group and start all over again with something new?
It’s in the blood, as they say, opening and running restaurants. I left Texture just over a year ago. I spent the first six months doing very little, other than thinking about what to do next. Obviously restaurants were on the radar and then this space came up and it just made it seem even more obvious. I’d kind of done 28-50. When we first started it was unique, for sure. Then it grew, and once a restaurant grows too big, you lose the reason you started and aspire to do something else. 

Xavier Rousset

Eating at the bar is a pretty new development in this country. How popular is it?
Most people really enjoy it. A few don’t and I don’t really understand why, to be honest. At Blandford Comptoir the bar is where the main kitchen is, so you can see everything going on. Eating at the bar is not that common in France—beer and coffee yes, but not eating—but I love it. You can pop in for champagne and oysters, pop in for a coffee, pop in for a glass of red and a steak. There are quite a few places in London with a bar now, it’s really gaining traction. I think it was Barrafina that started it and with this new tapas culture, it has really grown from there.

Of all the places you’ve worked in or set up, this feels the most ‘you’. Is that fair to say?
I don’t know, because I believe every time I do a restaurant, it is ‘me’. Everything I do, I do 100 per cent. That said, a lot of people have said the same thing, so maybe it is. I don’t have an active business partner here as I did in Aggi Sverrisson at Texture group and I do think you evolve as you go through life: in the way you approach design, the food, the drink and so on. Perhaps Blandford Comptoir is an evolution of myself.

Who’s the chef?
Ben Mellor. He used to work with me at 28-50 Marylebone, actually. He was executive chef there, so I have known him for five years. Alice, the manager, is from 28-50 in Fetter Lane and the sommelier, Devon, is also from 28-50, as well as the Chiltern Firehouse. This place being so small, everyone is on top of each other all the time, so it’s really important we all get on. I have four or five people from a previous life here, 23 staff in total, though of course we’re on rotation. Devon is in charge of the wine list and she advises customers and so on, but I am around a lot of the time. 

You have been one of the country’s top sommeliers. Do you still keep a hand in the wine industry?
Yes, absolutely! Obviously I have to manage a restaurant as well, but I’m still involved with the Master Sommelier awards, the UK Sommelier of the Year, stuff like that. There are always new trends, new wine writers, new suppliers—you need to be in the loop at all times. I am always tasting wines and meeting people in the wine industry.

We’re not one of those places that says, we do this menu and therefore we do this wine list. I buy a selection of varieties and flavours and people choose what they want to have. It is so personal. I’m not a sommelier who says, “You’re having this dish? You must have the pinot noir.”

Have you ever thought of setting up a straight wine bar?
I’m not saying I would never do it, but it has to be the right location. You can’t do lunch, if you’re a wine bar. It’s rammed after work—people come in, buy a bottle, order some bread and cheese—but it’s not easy to make it work if you’re not in the right place. I would like to do a wine shop, maybe, in the style of 10 Cases in Covent Garden, with a bar inside the shop. That is a brilliant concept. I think the reason I have erred more toward restaurants is that I just love eating out.

How has the wine world changed since you started?
There is so much more to remember. There are more countries doing better wines and more AOC wines—the highest grade of appellation. There is so much more to learn and explore in countries like China and Canada. Even in this country, sparkling wine is so big now: there is so much to remember, so much to taste. I think sommeliers are changing and becoming less snooty and more accessible, too. Wine should be every day, as far as I am concerned: I was brought up with it on the table, as part of the gastronomy. If you are eating and having a good plate of food, you should have a good wine with it. 

What lessons have you learnt during your many years in the restaurant industry?
You can’t please everyone. If you try, you end up compromising and you please no one at all. You just have to give the highest quality you think you can give. It is not easy. When I worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons it was particularly difficult, because people have such high expectations and at those prices, to try and exceed them, that is hard. You need to be on top of your game every lunch, every dinner, every Christmas. No wonder our industry gets tired.

You have to love it, I suppose...
Yes, that is why I say it’s in the blood. I fell in love with wine when I was 16 when I went to a vineyard with friends. I was looking, smelling, tasting—even at 16, I could taste so much!—and the guy explained the difference between the glasses in front of me and I was hooked. And that was it, really. That’s the thing about the wine industry: no one really leaves it. I know a lot of doctors and lawyers and so on who leave their worlds to go into wine, but I don’t know anyone who has ever made the return journey. They benefit in so many other ways that, even though they earn less and work so much harder, they never go back.

Le Manoir has been around 39 years. The restaurant that occupied this space before, Zoom, was here 24 years. What’s the secret of longevity, do you think?
You need substance. If you are in it for the cash, you are going to go down. It’s about giving value to the customer and if you take the piss, excuse my French, you will get them once only and after six months you will close. Twenty-four years is amazing. When Zoom left, I joked to the guy, I’m going to be here 25 years. There is a good community here in Marylebone and if the local people like what you do and you get to know them, you will be part of the community—part of everyone’s life.