by Carolyn Hart, The Daily Telegraph, January 16, 2015
The Bassili family were the first business to take smoked salmon to Lebanon. Now, with a Belgravia outpost of the family restaurants, they're ready to impress a new crowd.
|photo by Salmontini London|
Here’s a tip for all those twentysomething singletons keen to brush up on their dating skills: take a taxi to Belgravia in London, where, in the upmarket environs of Pont Street, lurks a charming, currently unattached, bachelor. And just in time for Valentine’s Day too.
Jason Bassili, the chap in question, arrived early last year from the Middle East, via Yorkshire, intent on finding a site where he could launch the London outpost of the Salmontini fish restaurants established by his father, Joe, in Beirut, Dubai and Jeddah. He spent two weeks slogging the streets in search of suitable venues before finally noticing that a building just round the corner from his hotel was up for rent. ‘I went in and thought, this is it,’ he says, ‘and five days later I had the lease on the restaurant and three upstairs apartments.’
Bassili, whose previous restaurant experience had been time spent working for his father, was initially taken aback by the complexities of the UK food industry. ‘It’s very different here,’ he says. ‘In Lebanon if you want something done, you know a man who knows a man. But I was in London and I didn’t know how it worked.’
But in October, having overcome several local difficulties – London’s Victorian drainage system and licensing laws being just two of them – he launched Salmontini London . It inhabits that awkward no man’s land between Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, a square mile or so of impossibly chic shops and expensive mews cottages, and is just round the corner from Cadogan Lane where Judy Garland breathed her last, aged 47, in an unprepossessing house now adorned with a dead rose pinned to a tatty piece of paper commemorating the tragic star.
It is a neighbourhood ripe for a sleek new restaurant, in other words, and Salmontini (a name that ‘has stuck’, according to Bassili, in tones that indicate he wishes it hadn’t) more than fits the bill. Fronting on to Pont Street, it is a smart, grey and white space, decorated with industrial-chic lighting, one wall taken up by a great slab of backlit onyx weighing 126 stone (‘It took a lot of effort to get that in’), a 19th-century brick fireplace, an original mahogany herringbone floor and an impressive atrium of which Bassili is inordinately proud. ‘This is the first restaurant,’ he says, as we sit at his just-opened bar, ‘that I have done by myself – from bottom up.’
And what does his father think? ‘My father loves it,’ he says. ‘He came to the opening in October.’
Approbation from Bassili Sr is especially pleasing, one imagines, for the 28-year-old Jason. The defining ingredient of the Salmontini restaurants is smoked salmon (though carnivores are catered for with the likes of 35-day-aged rib-eye steak). So passionate was Joe about this fishy product that in 1990 he travelled to Shetland to learn how to smoke it himself. When he returned to Beirut he built himself a homemade smokery using a small cupboard attached to an 8ft pipe on the balcony of his flat. ‘It didn’t work,’ Bassili says. ‘And especially not in Beirut where bombs were going off and the Syrian occupation was in progress.’
Undaunted, his father bought a 30-year-old smoking machine and took it to the Lebanese mountains where he could smoke in relative peace. He built a factory and started smoking salmon imported from Shetland. Bassili, who grew up in the industrial environs of Barnsley but had spent his summer holidays with his father in Byblos by the sea, now spent them in the mountains, learning how to smoke, clean and slice salmon by hand, and sell it to supermarkets.
The smoked salmon became so successful that Joe decided, in partnership with Hussni Ajlani, who is still very much involved in the business, to open the first Salmontini restaurant in Beirut. ‘It was like fin-de-siècle Paris,’ Jason remembers, ‘all gold and marble and red velvet. A proper old-school French restaurant. The prime minister was eating there three times a week. I was 16 and working in the kitchens.’ But in 2005 Rafiq Hariri, who had recently resigned as prime minister, was assassinated and the political climate in Lebanon, always volatile, was dire. Joe decided to move to Dubai, where he built a new smokehouse and opened the second Salmontini.
In 2012 Jason joined him, helping his father in a process that by now employed 70 people and produced 12 tons of smoked salmon a week, all sourced from the original Shetland supplier and all sliced by hand. ‘I was helping to sell it,’ Bassili recalls, ‘a Yorkshire Arab with a stutter attempting to sell smoked salmon… It should never have worked.’ Luckily for him, his father’s product was good enough to ensure that it did. The Bassili smoke is a slightly tweaked version of the original Shetland recipe, using oak chippings sourced from Stuttgart and Kent, over which the fish is smoked for 24 hours. The result is an extremely mild and creamily flavoured, soft and melting salmon. It is now such a hit in the Middle East that you can find it in about 80 per cent of the hotels in Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, the Maldives and beyond.
And now it has reached London, though there has been something of a setback. A recent change in EU regulations means it is impossible to import salmon smoked in Dubai into this country. Briefly Bassili was ‘left with a smoked salmon restaurant without any smoked salmon’ – before the smoking process for the London Salmontini was moved to Shetland. It is the same salmon, the same recipe, but without the air miles.
Bassili plans to open another four or five restaurants in the UK before venturing to New York.
‘I want one in every cool city,’ he says. ‘Dad wants one in Mykonos [one gets the impression he’ll be lucky], but I don’t want hundreds – only six or seven, family run. Most people here in the restaurant have been with us for seven or eight years. I’m hoping they’ll stick with me.’ salmontini.com
Try Jason Bassili's favourite Salmontini recipes
This article was written by Carolyn Hart from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.