The London restaurant trade is reeling from the sudden and shocking death of Russell Norman, the man who brought small dishes designed to be shared to London 14 years ago.
With the Venetian-flavoured Polpo and latterly with Brutto, Norman established himself, in the words of his friend, food critic Richard Vines, as “one of the most creative and influential UK restaurateurs London has known. He could see the big picture and the tiniest detail at the same time”.
Other tributes from those who knew him well were similarly eloquent about his charm and kindness. The attention to detail noted by Vines was laid out by Norman in a 32-point sequence of service outlining a customer’s journey at Polpo from the moment they enter (“they are greeted by the manager”) to when they leave (“smile and say goodbye”). Shockingly, he was just 57 when a cardiac arrest ended his life.
As stylish as his restaurants, Norman served beautifully-crafted food in surroundings that eschewed any hint of formality but instead placed taste, flavour and fun front and centre of the dining experience. The food (and the Negroni cocktails which he also made hugely popular in this country) was what you were there for after queuing to get in – no reservations being another of his innovations.
It’s a hallmark of so much Italian food that the dishes can be as simple as they are delicious. Among the starters at Brutto are chicken liver toasts and (my favourite) anchovies with cold butter and sourdough – open a tin, get some butter from the fridge and slice some bread. Yes, you can do this at home, but Norman added the ambience in beautifully curated locations.
Of course, doing something new in London restaurants does not guarantee success or critical acclaim. There was a meatball-focused restaurant some years ago that rolled off into the night at some speed while Naked Soho (“London’s first sex-themed restaurant”) quickly went the way of all flesh (sorry about that) without troubling the critics.
So, why have sharing and small plates hit the spot so well? What visceral needs do they tap inside us that make them so popular? A few answers to that, I think.
Firstly, they (literally) bring diners closer together, whether they be a couple on a nerve-racking first date or participants in a somewhat stiffer business encounter – non-cringe icebreaker, if you like. You start by agreeing on the dishes you are going to share (instead of reeling off your individual orders to a waiter). And when the dishes arrive, you literally pick over them together – leaning in, as they say these days. A pas de deux may ensue as people avoid taking the last piece of ham or mopping up the last puddle of labneh, but this is likely to end in a friendly agreement to share the spoils.
Secondly, it ensures you get an amazing variety of flavours throughout your meal. The sharing fixed menu I enjoyed recently at Bubala, the Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant in Soho, brought everything from halloumi and black seed honey to savoy cabbage, tofu, shiitake and chive salsa via confit potato latkes with chilli to the table. Over at Sessions Arts Club, one of the capital’s hottest venues, we got to share beetroot, goat’s curd and black olive, mackerel, pumpkin and mandarin and eel, and potato and crème fraiche. Something for everybody.
Compare that with ordering one single starter or main course. It may be the best you have tasted but you will be going home talking of one dish, not four or five. Which brings me on to the third and final reason why sharing plates trigger so much joy – Fomo, or more precisely, a lack thereof.
We’ve all ordered a starter or main course we almost instantly regretted choosing. Maybe we chose it because we secretly wanted what our companion ordered but didn’t want to copy them and display a lack of originality – instantly the wrong kind of note to start a meal off on. Yes, your colleague or friend might offer a tiny corner of what they are enjoying (possibly under sufferance), but that only serves to make Fomo worse, not better, as they bang on about how wonderful their choice is.
Of course, since sharing plates have spread far and wide, some restaurants with an eye on the bottom line rather than culinary excellence have taken things too far. The jokes write themselves (“we recommend at least nine dishes per person and the chef will send them out in whatever order he feels like”).
But as the old saying goes, they only make fun of your ideas because they’re jealous. Much better to avoid the jibes and sneers, crack open a tin of anchovies with some bread and butter and toast Russell Norman’s life with a negroni.
This is an article was originally published by CityWire. X/Twitter: Richard Lander. If you value On London’s journalism, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return, you’ll get a fab London newsletter and offers of free tickets to top events.