Food critics’ favourite, Wright Brothers is about to open its fourth London seafood restaurant in South Kensington, we meet its oyster-obsessed founders, Ben Wright and Robin Hancock
The Wright Brothers – also known as brothers-in-law Ben Wright and Robin Hancock – will soon be opening their latest restaurant in South Kensington on the site of La Bouchée, the establishment previously known for both its cosy atmosphere and somewhat dated cuisine. They’re aiming to use the decade’s worth of experience that they’ve accrued since opening their first establishment in Borough in 2005 to offer Kensington the very finest in fresh seafood. They will specialise, of course, in oysters, which they cultivate and harvest from their farm in Cornwall.
The combination of stylish décor and top-notch food seems like an easy idea but, as Robin says, ‘we originally wanted our Borough restaurant to feel like the sort of place you’d visit in Paris, so, without huge amounts of money, we set about transforming our wholesale business into a place where you could feed the public.’ Ben chimes in with ‘it’s what we always wanted to do. We had this wonderful product and felt jealous of chefs having all the fun, so we got involved. But as we expanded to Soho, and then Spitalfields, before Kensington, we knew things had to change.’
It was au revoir to many of the trappings that you’d expect from an upmarket oyster establishment, such as white tablecloths, formal service and sky-high prices. In their place came fun, buzzy restaurants, and the opportunity to have oysters for a pound each in their afternoon ‘happy hours’. Other, less predictable trappings of success, such as critical acclaim, have followed. This is a far cry from their original idea of literally standing on a corner in Borough with an oyster stand, but, thanks to an unexpected intervention from Mark Hix (who sold them an unwanted kitchen of his), their idea turned into a successful restaurant.
When asked what they’ve discovered since they began, Ben replies that ‘we’ve had to essentially become restaurateurs, which we hadn’t really thought about when we started. We’ve had to think about things like what’s suitable for the location, and how you need to offer the style and content that people want in each area. We can’t just recreate what we did in Borough in Soho or Kensington, as it wouldn’t work.’ And they’ve certainly got grand ambitions; as Ben cheerily says, ‘it’s our plan that one day each neighbourhood should have a Wright Brothers in it!’
Kensington is offering a particularly enjoyable challenge for them both. Robin informs me that ‘we’d had our eye on the La Bouchée site for ages – even before we opened Soho – but it wasn’t available, so when it finally came up, we both became very excited. The thing about South Kensington is that there’s a strong French market there anyway, because of the Lycée and the Institut Français, and so people want a nice place to eat. What we felt about our predecessor is that it was very traditional and hopefully we can bring something fresh to the table.’
The menu’s still being developed at the time of our interview but, as Ben says, ‘the oysters and the fruits de mer will be central to what we’re doing, although we’d also like to have a strong drinks offering in our bar, so if people wanted to come in for a drink and a few oysters – like they would in France – they can do that too.’ This is the kitchen’s cue to bring me over a selection of oysters to sample, and, in the interests of journalistic experimentation, I gulp down some of the house’s finest, including the much-heralded ‘native’ oysters, which have an almost creamy taste. And then comes my near-downfall. Some of the house specialities include oysters served with (fabulous) chilli jam and a cucumber sorbet, but I save the strongest for last, the kizami wasabi, which I nonchalantly slurp down as if it’s a sweet. At first, there’s nothing, and then the hot flavour of the wasabi kicks in. It’s scrumptious, but not for the faint-throated, which is why I suddenly begin to wonder if something deeply embarrassing is about to happen. Thankfully, all is well, and the interview continues, with some off-the-record musing on other restaurants, especially as regards to their pricing of oysters. Finally, it’s time to go, and Robin and Ben – convivial hosts both – show me out. ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ Robin says, with the mixture of charm and courtesy that’s established them as some of the leaders in their field. To which all I can do is to adopt the language of La Bouchée and reply ‘Moi, aussi’. Like their aeronautical forefathers, the Wright Brothers are flying high.
Wright Brothers South Kensington is set to open mid-August at 56 Old Brompton Road SW7 3DY; thewrightbrothers.co.uk
Words: Alexander Larman, Images by Tom Dunkley