To the wider world, Bryn Williams is known for his appearances on Saturday Kitchen and for his well-received cookery books. To Primrose Hill, however, he is the chef-patron of Odette’s restaurant, which sits in its prominent position at the top of the parade of shops on Regent’s Park Road.
The restaurant had long been a local favourite. Bryn arrived as head chef when it was taken over by Vince Power in 2006, and two years later, having fallen in love with the area, Bryn bought the restaurant himself.
“I opened Odette’s 7 years ago, and the reason I stayed in London – because I was ready to leave at that point – was that Primrose Hill’s village atmosphere gives me the way of life that I used to have as a kid. The village life of Primrose Hill suits me down to the ground. I can walk the dog, I can step outside and say hello to people, and I like – no, I actually love – that way of life. If it wasn’t for Primrose Hill, I would most probably have left London. I’d had enough of the city, but here you have the city on your doorstep, if you want it, but you also have village life, the sociable side of Primrose Hill, and that’s what I love. It’s the people who make that kind of village atmosphere. I couldn’t move from the area now. You’ve got Regent’s Park on your doorstep, Primrose Hill on your doorstep, what more do you want? You’ve got great shops, nice restaurants, nice little coffee shops, it’s fantastic, and the people are nice. We share things. If we run out of something, we go down to the Greenberry Cafe, if they need something, they come to us. At Nicolas, the wine shop across the road, he goes shooting and brings us back game from Wales.”
Now, having lived for five years with the rather outré – and not universally popular – grey, black and yellow floral interior, Bryn has had the restaurant refurbished to his own taste, and when we met for coffee and a chat, he was clearly delighted and comfortable with the quietly confident, low-key but stylish results.
“Now it does reflect me a little bit, it’s not in your face, it’s quite calm and it’s quite relaxing, quite cosy as well.”
Bryn is clear and honest with his views on Odette’s previous incarnation:
“I ran it for two years as head chef, then I bought it myself five years ago. I never really liked it to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t a reflection of me, I know some of the locals didn’t like it, and I’m with them on that one, so the first thing I did when I bought the place was to paint over most of the wallpaper. We changed the yellow seats for green ones, and tried to power down a bit. But when you buy a business, all your resources go into buying the business, so I always had it in the back of my mind to change it when I could.”
The new decor signals a desire to nudge Odette’s in a subtly new direction, maintaining the high standards but expressing more clearly the integrity of Bryn’s kitchen, allowing the food to speak for itself, without the distraction of the sprauncy, statement interior.
Now, Bryn is making a statement of his own: “It’s simplicity, but done really well, and that’s what I’m about.”
Bryn’s style in the kitchen puts flavour and quality centre-stage. He emphasised:
“Our style of cooking is very seasonal. We concentrate on three or four things on a plate, because it’s all about a good combination of flavours and textures, executed well. We really put emphasis on the kitchen and on really cooking to the best of our ability. For instance, the braised beef on at the moment is marinated for 12 hours, then cooked for twelve hours with Guinness and stout – not with red wine because we think that takes the flavour away a bit. It’s all about the natural flavour and it’s very, very British. Then we have whole-cooked carrots, cooked in literally 200mls of water, a little bit of butter, not cooking all these vegetables in loads and loads of water and losing all the flavour. For us it’s all about catching the flavour.”
“Food’s all about flavours, it doesn’t matter how many components are on a plate. If there are fifteen things on a plate but it doesn’t really do much in flavour terms, you’re better off putting three or four, and nailing every single one. Then you get the real taste of the carrot, the real taste of the mushrooms, the real taste of the beef. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The new decor completely reflects this: a few elements, done well. Plush banquettes, a stylish parquet floor, a beautifully-proportioned window to the front, subtle lighting – certainly the kind of place to linger in comfortably.
Offering value is also high on Bryn’s agenda: “Here at Odette’s we are actually cheaper than we were seven years ago. I think that’s very important. With our £15 lunch menu, there’s a choice of two starters, two main courses and two desserts. With that you get freshly-made bread, olives, all that for £15. For the quality, for the area that we’re in, it’s value that people can’t refuse, were hoping.”
Where does Bryn like to eat and drink when he steps away from his own kitchen?
“I love going to the Greenberry Cafe. They’re very good. It’s light, it’s modern, there’s a good selection on the menu; it’s a good place to drop in. I love The Little One coffee shop, next door to Bibendum. I think their coffee’s really good. In fact, it’s similar to Odette’s: they focus on one thing, and they do it well. And we go to the Queens or down to the Pembroke as well after service.”
Much as Bryn loves the area, is there anything he would change?
He is firm: “I wouldn’t change anything. It was a big shame losing Fishworks, and to have a butcher or a bakery would be good, but I wouldn’t actively change things, because if you do that you ruin things.” Allowing a natural evolution is appropriate, however, and Bryn would welcome “additions that come along – artisan, real quality things, like the early days of Marylebone High Street. I used to work at the Orrery around 10 years ago, and at that point it was quite a cool place to go shopping. If we could get the feel of the early years of the Marylebone High St, that would be fantastic. From a change point of view, sometimes you have to go with the natural changes, because if you stand still too long, places and things get forgotten, so I think it’s a really fine line for what you change and what doesn’t change.
“I think its important to keep the street alive, not in the sense of going with fashion, but keeping up with what’s going on in nice, smart areas of London. If you don’t go with that it could backfire. We’re in central London. Let’s not forget that. We’re in one of the busiest cities in Europe; it’s going to change, there’s no point trying to fight it. But what it changes to is the most important thing. How can this capital city not change? It’s impossible.”
Bryn speaks with such passion – and charm, I might add – about his food, his restaurant and our lovely neighbourhood, and I sense that Odette’s is in the process of consolidating its place in the heart – figuratively and literally – of Primrose Hill.
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