Isa Bal’s hair has become rather more unruly over the last few weeks. With his salt-and-pepper beard and wild locks, his resemblance to the Grateful Dead’s late Jerry Garcia is more vivid than ever.
But the Master Sommelier has far more pressing matters on his mind than finding a barber. Bal and his business partner – and fellow Fat Duck alumnus – Jonny Lake opened their new restaurant Trivet in London’s Bermondsey last October.
Everything was looking good. Lake and Bal’s pedigree was faultless – a dozen years each as group executive chef and group head sommelier, respectively, at Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Bermondsey, which runs south from London Bridge, is packed with hip eateries like José Pizarro’s two restaurants, Hervé Durochat’s tiny Casse-Crôute, Angela Hartnett’s Café Murano and others.
Trivet’s opening was trailed by such arbiters of style as the Financial Times’ How to Spend It supplement. Lake and Bal produced modernist (but not too modernist) dishes with traditional ingredients and a eastern twist. The “Hokkaido Potato” – baked potato Mille feuille, sake and white chocolate mousse, butter and sake gelato – was an Instagram hit.
The London wine scene, where Bal is a popular figure, also took to Trivet, where the wine list is imaginative and leans towards lesser-known but newly-rediscovered regions such as Armenia and Georgia (“The focus is on the birthplace of winemaking,” Bal told me).
By any metric, Trivet had been doing well. “We got a good, strong customer base very quickly. Between November and March we had some people who came back more than five times. Two or three people came 10 times.”
Reviews were approving or better. Nick Lander of the FT loved it. Andy Hayler, never one to gush, said, “it is some years since I can recall a new London restaurant offering dishes at this high-quality level”; William Sitwell in The Telegraph labelled one chicken dish the “most perfect” he could imagine.
“We opened at the end of October and were just starting to turn an operative profit in March,” Bal says. “And from there on it just cut out.” They had watched the virus spread westwards with increasing fear. “In a way, we knew it was coming, but the speed with which it arrived was unbelievable.”
Now, their business plan is all about planning for post-lockdown, and working out what they need to survive. Business rates in this part of London are steep – upwards of £90,000 a year – and the original government package of up to £25,000 only covered businesses with a rateable value up to £50,000, meaning most Bermondsey restaurants would be ineligible. Following intensive lobbying a further pot has been made available for local authorities to distribute. Bal is cautiously optimistic that the sums will work out.
There are further hurdles though. “For Business Interruption insurance, one of the stipulations is that the company must have been in profit since December last year,” Bal said. “Many restaurants work on tiny margins – they don’t always look like they’re in profit. So that has ruled out many restaurants.”
One of Trivet’s advantages is that the venue’s fine, muted design by Turkish architects Derin Yesil (Bal is Turkish-born) allows generous space between tables. “When we re-open we can still do 60 covers and be safe,” Bal said. And crucially, with those numbers they should be able to stay afloat.
The biggest hurdle of all will be getting customers back through the door. Dining out is a convivial experience and the danger is that people will baulk at all the rules. In Italy, restaurateurs are looking at options that include plexiglass panels between diners; compulsory masks and gloves for waiters, and for diners whenever they get up from their table; and the disinfecting of tables and chairs between sittings.
“It’s going to be hard but this is a transitionary period where we have to do things that are out of the ordinary,” Bal says. “I have no doubt that people will want to come out and eat, and they are going to have to accept the fact that things aren’t what they used to be.”
He has been following other countries’ situations closely. In New South Wales in Australia, restaurants, cafés and bars opened last week, under stipulations including just 10 customers at a time, hand sanitisers throughout, no condiments on the tables, customer registration and other measures. “It doesn’t sound the most pleasant restaurant experience,” Bal concedes.
Meanwhile, Bal and Lake are looking at all options. Their business plan had always been to run an online wine retail operation, and from this Sunday they will be selling 150 wines, at prices between £9.99 and £80 a bottle. It’s a nice list, ranging from a wide variety of Turkish offerings such as Chateau Kalpak from the east of the country, to a Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin or entry-level Côtes-du-Rhône.
Another plan is to open for breakfast and do all-day dining to 5.30, with evening service as normal. “It’s all about controlling costs and adapting,” says Bal.
“Human beings are adaptable animals. The industry will survive – things will change, there will be a re-shuffle, but it will come back stronger and there will be a lot of opportunities. So we’re not all doom and gloom – that’s not going to help, is it?”