As Gypsy Rose Lee sings in the Stephen Sondheim musical named after her, "You gotta get a gimmick." She's offering advise to would-be strippers on how to stand out from the crowd, but she might just as well be talking to restaurateurs. These days, it's not enough to have a great chef, a fabulous interior decorator and a hip location--you gotta get a gimmick.
Oliver Rowe, the owner of Café Konstam in King's Cross, knows this better than most. He started out as a chef at Moro, the restaurant in Exmouth Market which made its name by serving up an unusual combination of Spanish and North African food. Rowe's second posting, as the head chef at Maquis on Hammersmith Grove, was less successful. Maquis offered a fairly traditional menu of Franco-Spanish fare--much like countless other restaurants--and closed within 18 months. Rowe isn't about to make the same mistake again. Next month, he's opening a restaurant called Konstam at the Prince Albert--also in King's Cross--and this time round he's come up with an absolute humdinger of a gimmick: he's only going to serve food sourced in London. That's right, everything on the menu, from the bass caught in the Thames to potatoes grown on Rowe's allotment in Barnet, is going to be from London. He's even managed to track down a sparkling white wine made from grapes grown in Cobham.
So successful is this gimmick, that when I arrive at Café Konstam in the hope of getting an early preview of these locally-sourced ingredients, Rowe is huddled with a five-strong team of press agents. It turns out they're from Source, the restaurant PR company, and Rowe isn't even having to pay for this gaggle of courtiers. An independent television production company is picking up the tab because, wouldn't you know it, BBC2 has commissioned a multi-part series about Rowe's new venture. Thanks to Rowe's ingenious marketing ploy, Konstam at the Prince Albert is destined to be one of the most talked-about restaurants of 2006.
Alas, the only thing on the menu at Café Konstam that will reappear when the converted pub opens in a fortnight's time are the mushrooms. They may taste exactly like all the other mushrooms I've ever eaten, but there's no disputing their local provenance--they're grown in polytunnels beneath the North Circular in East Ham. Still, I'm not complaining. They form part of a large breakfast that consists of two rashers of bacon, two poached eggs and several spoonfuls of bubble--and they're all cooked to perfection. If the food at the new restaurant is as good as this, its undoubted success will be well-deserved.
Café Konstam, it must be said, is a truly delightful place on almost every level. It's tiny--scarcely any bigger than my bathroom in Shepherd's Bush--but it's so well designed, with one entire wall taken up by a smoked-glass mirror, it feels quite spacious. Customers sit on long, wooden benches and eat from wooden trestle-tables resting on a slate floor. The other wall consists of a giant corkboard and, apart from a few postcards, the only decoration is a picture of a stag made from different coloured drawing pins. The overall atmosphere is informal and relaxed--yet somehow smart and upmarket at the same time. It's an unbeatable combination.
According to Oliver Rowe, who manages to squeeze me in between photo calls, his best customers are the girls who work in Harmony, the massage parlour next door, though he also gets a regular influx from the Gagosian gallery down the road, as well as the British Library. King's Cross is currently in the throws of being gentrified and Rowe is very much part of that process. When the new EuroStar terminal at St Pancras opens next year, the whole area will be transformed.
Harmony probably won't be around for much longer, but something tells me that Café Konstan is here to stay.