Evelyn’s Table is one of the littlest restaurants in London. When it reopens on 27 October, it will be even smaller. The venue, in the converted beer cellar of The Blue Posts pub in Chinatown, ordinarily seats 11. With social distancing in place, there will be room for only nine. The chefs Luke Selby and his brothers Nat and Theo were set to debut here in April. The restaurant’s extended closure has kept them treading water until now. Luke, 29, was head chef at Hide Above on Piccadilly when it won a Michelin star in 2018. Before that he worked under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Nat, 27, and Theo, 25, have cooked alongside him for years, first at Le Manoir and more recently as sous-chefs at Hide Above.
Evelyn’s Table is their chance to cook the way they love most – classically – and to do so in front of an audience, as guests are seated at a counter overlooking the kitchen. Much of the pleasure of coming here will be watching the chefs perform. But don’t expect any razzle-dazzle for its own sake. What you get isn’t so much a song and dance as a quiet show of confidence. “We know what we are thinking without speaking,” Luke told me when I visited for a preview tasting in September. The challenges of pulling together a five-course meal in a galley kitchen the size of a closet hardly registered. What struck me more was the ease with which they glided around one another. It was an endearing pas de trois.
The menu wasn’t showy either. Dishes were rooted in classic French and Japanese techniques. A starter of Jerusalem artichoke and sour-cream sorbet was full of textures and teasingly subtle flavours. The buckwheat noodles with mushroom dashi and smoked soy was just as light, a soothing distillation of umami. The third course was bolder, and very French – brill poached in a braisage sauce with leek terrine. The leeks had been pressed into a chequerboard of white and green and were the most gorgeously leek-tasting leeks I’d ever had. Next was a sublime lamb belle époque, followed by a pre-dessert scoop of toasted rice ice cream (like a yummy bowl of cereal). Last came tarte tatin in a miso-caramel sauce, for which the Pink Lady had been cut into a long strip, fashioned into a rose bud and swaddled in pastry. The muffin-shaped dessert was beautifully chewy on the outside and moist in the middle.
Given the set-up at Evelyn’s Table, the removal of three seats seems unlikely to diminish the customer experience. But the same cannot be said of other small venues. One of my favourites, Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen, housed in a tiny fisherman’s cottage in Port Isaac, Cornwall, had to remove four of its eight tables to meet social distancing rules. The food may be impeccable, but for a restaurant that thrives off hustle and bustle and the energy of dining in close quarters that is inevitably a buzzkill. The spirit of cramped venues around the world, whether the pintxos bars of Bilbao or the izakaya joints of Tokyo, has similarly been dampened.
Some pint-sized venues are still, however, generating excitement. The dining room at El Papagayo in Cordoba, Argentina, measures 2.5m wide and 32m long. It normally seats 32. That is now down to 12. Chef-patron Javier Rodriguez has altered the menu to ensure the 11 or more courses can be completed in less than two hours (the maximum time allowed in restaurants in Argentina). By his admission, though, these changes (which include adding “snack format” dishes and serving courses simultaneously) have made the experience “more dynamic and fun”.
Tsuta in Tokyo, the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant, has reduced its capacity from 23 seats to around 16. But chef Yuki Onishi continues to innovate for his increasingly homegrown customer base. Recent new dishes have included clam-chowder dipping ramen with fricassée wagyu sweetbread and roasted pork, and freshwater-trout cold salt ramen.
In Sydney, chef Josh Niland has shrunk his seafood restaurant Saint Peter from 34 to 15 seats and drastically reconfigured the space. “We knew it wouldn’t work to simply remove tables,” he says. “The vibe of just seven tables would have been strange and we didn’t want a constant reminder of Covid.” Now customers eat at a long bar opposite the chefs. The prices have gone up. But so has the experience, as customers get to watch, say, dry-aged yellowfin tuna being cut to order in front of them. “I love being able to talk to our customers and let them into our world,” Niland adds. “The room is definitely not as loud as it used to be, which many would argue is a good thing, but it has a lovely energy.” Sometimes smaller is better.