Fresh thinking

A new concept in catering has arrived on Woodstock Street, breathing new life into Mayfair’s dining scene. We meet the duo behind Neo Bistro, where no two daily menus will be the same

The basement of the recently opened Neo Bistro thrums with a pulsating bassline and the thud of a kick drum. I’m sitting opposite Mark Jarvis and Alex Harper, who are speaking so softly that I fret about whether or not I’m picking up their chatter. I awkwardly ask for the music to be turned down. They do, and we continue – but they are clearly more comfortable letting the food do the talking. At the time of interview, I hadn’t tried Neo Bistro, so I prod and poke for 20 minutes, trying to decipher the concept behind the new restaurant from Jarvis, chef-patron at the acclaimed Anglo; and Harper, former chef at The Harwood Arms – London’s only Michelin-starred pub.

Though seemingly unenthused by the idea of articulating what this venture is all about, this is what they tell me: the concept is based around a movement happening within the ever-hip dining scene of Paris. The “neo bistros” popping up across the French capital are said to be attracting classically trained, Michelin-star quality chefs to cook freely without the constraints that being in a star-chasing environment bring. They are down-home spots, where the creative whims of the chef are celebrated, and where no two menus are the same. What’s available seasonally, and what ideas form in the chef’s mind, are the only restrictions on the food that can be cooked.

Simple enough, and an admirable stance. This is the way restaurants appear to be going. The exclusivity that was once part and parcel of eating great food is going out the window in favour of approachability. It is a shift in the culture that is both inspired by the changing needs of diners, as well as the changing zeitgeist among the world’s most innovative chefs and restaurateurs. Even those in the World’s 50 Best list are popping up in inauspicious settings, bringing fine cooking to wider audiences.

 

“I think food on the whole is becoming a bigger thing,” says Jarvis. “With Instagram and Twitter, food has become more sociable. I think to keep up with the cheaper sort of places that are opening, you have to be more accessible. That’s with the wines and everything.”

 

Ultimately, Neo Bistro and the Parisian joints that have inspired this restaurant are driving down prices, undercutting fancier hotspots yet offering delicious, inventive and courageous cooking with a wholesome, unpretentious approach. “We’re just doing simple, good cooking. We’re trying to do a limited menu that is focused, using the best ingredients we can find,” says Harper. “We’ve brought in a good menu at a good price; you can give the diners more of what they want,” says Jarvis. “It opens it up to a wider market – people that might be put off by price.” That’s the key. These days, everyone is looking for the best meal they can find for the least amount of moolah.

This is where restaurants like Neo Bistro – alongside a healthy smattering of places on the environs of the city – are coming into their own. “Not everyone wants to go out and have a Michelin-starred meal and pay all that money; but I think people’s standards of what they want are getting higher and higher, and they want it at an affordable rate,” says Harper.
The interesting thing about Neo Bistro is that it’s in Mayfair; not typically known for its egalitarian approach. “In London, if the food is right then people will come from anywhere. It’s a Zone 1 location – you can commute to it really easily. If you’re asking if Neo Bistro will appeal to locals, then I think a busy restaurant always appeals to locals, because they see everyone else eating there.”

The cooking happening here certainly looks like it will come up to scratch for Mayfair’s spoilt foodies; and Michelin star-spotters can relax, as its creators have plenty of experience, including at Texture and Le Manoir. “We’re not actively trying to avoid Michelin, and it’s not that we don’t want to be like a Michelin-starred restaurant; this is just us having fun, and it doesn’t have to be set in stone,” says Jarvis. “I think Michelin is changing its criteria. Like that noodle place in Singapore – a hawker stand got a star.”

Anglo opened in Farringdon in March 2016 to critical acclaim. Jarvis says: “In London, a name helps. But we just deliver something that makes people happy. I just wanted to cook good food and have fun, and I think that comes through.” They are taking the same relaxed approach with Neo Bistro, where the menu will constantly change. “If we want to cook pommes soufflées, why not?” says Jarvis. “If Alex wants to do a sashimi tomorrow night, why not? It’s good for the diner. This restaurant is based around Alex – much like Anglo is around me. It’s about him showing his freedom in what he wants to cook.”

It’s early days at Neo Bistro, but after two invigorating openings in London, what can insatiable diners expect next? “We’re thinking about opening downstairs,” says Harper, noting that they are unsure whether that might be a restaurant or a bar. “Anglo’s always changing; menus, interiors, everything. The small details,” says Jarvis. “We want it to be a constant evolution here too; this will never stop moving.” Jarvis isn’t far enough down the line with Neo Bistro to start thinking about another restaurant – but London’s foodies wait in anticipation, stomachs rumbling and knives and forks in hand.