It’s not often that a London restaurant manages to sneak on to the scene with barely a ripple of PR buzz about it. It’s even more unusual when you consider that with Trullo there were some truly good hooks – one of the two partners was one of Jamie Oliver’s original crew at Fifteen, the other was the son of Lulu and John Frieda. Yet Tim Siadatan and Jordan Frieda managed to open up their affordable homage to The River Cafe with next to no fanfare, just a constant build of excitement from Highbury and Islington residents whose long wait for a decent neighbourhood restaurant was being repaid.
Hot Dinners caught up with Tim and Jordan to chat about their low-key opening and why Islington got lucky this time.
How did you two meet?
Jordan Frieda: My cousin is a very old friend of Tim’s. We met about six or seven years ago.
Tim Siadatan: I’d been working up at St John at that time but then I moved up to Oxford and was running a kitchen – QI. I was desperate for chefs. Jordan was always very keen on cooking – he’s a very good cook in fact.
Jordan: He’s being nice to me because you’re here!
I’d been in restaurants for about a year, I changed careers – I’d been an actor before.
I worked for a guy called Arthur Potts who set up Acorn House - I had an accountancy degree and helped them develop their business plan. Arthur and Jamie Grainger Smith had both worked at Fifteen and had struck out on their own, got some investors and some backing. I could see that this was what I wanted to do. I needed a chef, so I could do front-of-house and the business side. I knew that Tim was a great guy, amazingly good and wanted to run his own business and thought this is probably the guy.
I was going up to Oxford to do some shifts in the kitchen – not paid, just stages, and one day Tim asked me to do more. I could see that Acorn House was not where I wanted to go, and so I joined him full-time as a commis chef.
Tim: Outside of London, finding chefs is just impossible. It’s really difficult to find competent, passionate chefs.
Jordan: I may be passionate – but I was not competent. I had this idea that I love the River Cafe, I love the style of food, I was a bit of a Jamie Oliver convert. I was one of those people that, when Jamie came out, I thought ‘You can be a guy and cook and it’s cool. It’s not weird. He made it very cool for a young guy. When you’re 24 – that’s important.
So what was the idea behind Trullo?
Jordan: I thought, ‘Why aren’t there any restaurants where I can take a date, or go out with the guys, where the food is really good – of the quality and style that I like – where provenance is at the forefront – but really simple and cheap. I knew enough to know that fresh pasta or cheaper cuts of meat shouldn’t equate to more than around £10 on a restaurant plate. But no-one was doing it.
And of course the one thing about the River Cafe is how eye-watering expensive it is.
Jordan: They give the customer about as much leeway as they can do, they just spend so much on their ingredients. The oil we have which costs £15 a bottle, more expensive than most of our wine, which we use with careful little drizzles – they fry with it and use it for their staff dinner.
How long were you at The River Cafe for?
Jordan: Two years on the floor – I did the occasional stage in the kitchen. But the good thing is the waiters do a lot of the veg prep there, so it’s lovely when you’re describing a plate of food and you know you podded the borlotti beans. But sometimes – I don’t think it’s necessary to fly in salad leaves from Italy – that’s decadent when you think about the carbon footprint.
Having worked at Acorn House – did you consider the carbon footprint of this restaurant?
Jordan: I like to keep my side of the fence clean. In terms of recycling and food waste - everything I do at home - I consider the bare minimum of responsible living we do here. We’ve looked for a composter and talked to the council and it’s very expensive – we’ve got no outdoor space. We’d love to do more, but we’re chasing our tail just trying to do the bare minimum.
Tim: The council just aren’t set up for it.
Why did you pick Islington and this site in particular?
Tim: We’d looked all over. I’ve always lived around this area, but Jord’s West London. I would have loved to be here, but wasn’t fussed as long as we found the right site. We probably looked at around 100 sites in total.
Jodan: There are a lot of people who go out to eat in this area. It’s a great market, but it was a joke throughout the set-up that when we said, ‘Let’s go out to eat’ we always laughed because there wasn’t anywhere to go. We’d end up buying sandwiches. The Thai Corner Cafe I like – he’s the grumpiest bloke in the world, but that’s part of the charm.
Tim: I like The Draper’s Arms. And Ottolenghi. But it’s so expensive.
Was it hard to find backing?
Jordan: Yes, but it was a lot harder to find the site. We had a bunch of fundraising dinners. We were very lucky as Tim cooked some amazing food and people were like, ‘yeah OK’. Getting them to promise the money was fine – it was a bit harder getting them to sign the cheques.
So what was the kernel of your pitch?
Jordan: Just that there was a real gap in the market – there was a huge appetite for unfussy food, driven by seasonality and provenance issues like animal welfare. A place you could trust ethically that was cooking with products that were coming from relatively locally. And that was affordable. It’s got to be a really small menu, because we can’t afford to waste much. If we’re going to go for high quality at low cost, something’s got to give and that’s the size of the menu. And that was in tune with what we’d always felt, that you’d much rather go to a place with a small menu, but everything’s good.
Tim: We were fortunate to have worked at some great places. The River Cafe, Moro, St John, Fifteen – they are some of the best restaurants in London. It was about taking all the values we’d learned from those establishments and bringing them here. I can’t afford to go and eat in them all the time. I love the River Cafe but I couldn’t afford to go all the time.
Jordan: You still never pay at the River Cafe, mate.
Tim: But you couldn’t go twice a week. To take the ideals there and put it into an environment that’s more affordable.
[At this point a delivery of the most gorgeous-looking fruit and veg turns up]
Jordan: This is the shit you live for – these bad boys. Old Rushton is the most expensive greengrocer in this country. You call him and he’s on holiday in Barbados at the Sandy Lane. These are the guys the Cafe use and it’s just the best stuff. Look at these zucchini – you just don’t find this anywhere else. We’ve just got to be able to get this stuff in everyday.
Tim: Your veg has to be top drawer. If they ever give you something that’s substandard, you give them a real earbashing. But he’ll call me and say when something’s not at its best.
You were open for about two weeks before the critics started coming to Trullo. Did any of the online reviewers help? Even the bad ones?
Jordan: The later ones were right on the money and helped us. We sat and talked and said ‘Yeah, they’re right. Just things like the floor and kitchen weren’t communicating properly about price changes and portion sizes – in all the chaos some things slipped through the net. It was really useful, because it gave us the opportunity to address it, get it right – then we had David Sexton (from the Evening Standard) come in and all those problems had been ironed out. It was great because it was a slow night, we knew it was him and we had all the time in the world to get it right.
Tim: It was good though that he came in again the next Tuesday, because the menu had changed and he was able to try completely different dishes.
Sexton’s was a good review – did it make a difference?
Jordan: The phone started ringing around 4pm that day and didn’t stop. But it was terrifying. (Tim's) the eternal optimist and I’m the opposite, so I was worrying about the number of covers and staffing levels and he was saying it’ll be fine. Of course he was right and I was wrong.
Tim: Say that again – didn’t quite hear that.
Did you open Trullo, thinking that if you opened it and it worked, that you’d expand?
Jordan: We did in the beginning. But that was early days. The thing with a good restaurant is that you’ve got to be there.
Tim: There’s a reason why Moro haven’t opened another restaurant, why The River Cafe hasn’t. The reality for us – is that we can’t start spreading ourselves thinly. It just wouldn’t work.
Jordan: Maybe two? Because this is a small restaurant. If we can pay this loan back it would be great to open an 80 seater restaurant – it’s hard to make money on a 40-seater restaurant.
You've made an interesting decision to keep the mark-ups on all your wine to £10. What was the reasoning behind that?
Jodran: It was part of the value ethos. I worked with a very good General Manager at a place called The Frontline Club and his thing was, if you don’t keep very high stock levels of wine in essence you’re only paying for wine once you’ve sold it. Because the wine merchant invoices at the end of the month, by the time you’re paying the invoice you’ve probably sold that bottle of wine. As long as you’re making the same amount on the same bottle of wine, then the cost of that bottle of wine to you is irrelevant.
So all you are is a restaurant that only sells house wine – that’s a model that works. We will run out of wine. For instance, the Flaccianello (super Tuscan red) I only ever keep three bottles because it’s so expensive. So if a table comes in and wants to drink five bottles of it, well they can’t. They’ll have to let me know in advance.
Tim: You can get a bottle of wine here that would cost you £100 elsewhere for £40.
Jordan: Actually Flaccianello used to be on at The River Cafe for £105 a bottle. We sell it for £44.
Tim: We don’t want to fleece people when they come here – and if that means we don’t make as much money as we could do – for me, I sleep a lot better at night knowing people are having an amazing meal and incredible wine and people like me can come here and afford it.
What was your last good meal in London?
Tim: We had a good dinner the other night at Sam and Eddie [Hart]’s place and I love Great Queen Street. The best meal I’ve had recently was at Terroirs. We had an epic lunch there recently.
Jordan: Those anchovies with butter and toast! I still dream of those.
Tim: Terroirs was the best meal I’ve had for a long time, in fact I’d say it was the best meal I’ve had in London in a couple of years. I like the Turkish by my house – Mangal – I live in Stokey. That’s great.
The local crowd seems to like what you're doing here at Trullo, a lot.
Jordan: Whatever happens now I feel enough local people are coming in, often enough, that I feel we’ve got a customer base. We’ve got a group of people who like us.
Tim: If it continues being this busy – we may put aside a percentage of tables for local people.
Jordan: A guy called tonight who’s already come in four or five times – we are full, but when we realised who it was we said we’d find some space for him, even if he’ll have to wait a bit. We live for that.
Trullo is at 300 - 302 St Paul's Road, just off Highbury Corner. Find out what the critics thought.