Nathalie: come for the broccoli, stay for the afternoon.
The first is hard to miss — a great pile of deep green florets punctuated by smoked paprika almonds and coveted by professional lunchers from Vogue House to darkest St James’s.
The second is harder to achieve, I imagine, unless you’re a preternaturally successful, multi-passport toting young buck who is important enough not to have to hurry back to the office after the cheesecake.
But it’s nice to have something to aspire to of a lunchtime, and in these walls, with this lighting, you can pretend to be just as important as you like (the staff, sporting tailored lab coats and excellent hair cuts, are more than happy to play along.)
On the very rare occasion that the broccoli is out of stock, the fashionistas and boutique asset managers huff and puff and tap their John Lobb’s (this is the closest Hanover Square ever comes to a riot) before plumping for just about anything else, because there’s a lot on offer here, all colourful, all excellent, all on the right side of good for you.
Juan Santa Cruz, the man behind Nathalie, which opened in earnest last month, is your favourite restaurateur’s favourite restaurateur. I think that’s because his restaurants achieve a neat balancing act between the meticulous and the impulsive.
You’ve been to Isabel’s on Albermarle Street, where the Wes Anderson symmetry and precise service threatens, come the right time of the evening and the right potency of negroni, to break out into industry-grade fun in the cavern below the dining room. While over at Casa Cruz in Notting Hill, the scrupulous decor and millimetric tailoring pairs happily with friends-of-friends and fountains of bonhomie.
At Nathalie, the precision is in the design — mirror-edged symmetry, an elegant monochrome palette, the signature fans turning unhurriedly on the white ceiling — while the impulse is in the food.
With a cornucopia of colour on offer at the centre console, it can all feel a little like rapid-onset choice paralysis — there are over 100 dishes in circulation, after all, each picked, after a cascade of iterations and tweaks, by Juan himself. (The boss also flew to Italy to pick the cow-hide Dalmatia marble for the floors, slab by symmetrical slab.)
Of the fifteen-ish out today, I like the al-dente orecchiette, muddled with hazelnuts and parmesan and butter-soft leeks. But you might be more disposed towards the hispi cabbage, what with all that dijon yoghurt dressing and pork loin flying about.
There’s also the reassuring presence of some blackened chicken — an erstwhile favourite at each of Juan’s outlets — which goes down very happily with a carrot and cashew hummus. It wouldn’t be spring/summer ‘19, meanwhile, without a little pink vitello tonnato, and I can personally vouch for the soba noodles with pokey radish and tamari.
You pay for it all by weight as you approach the end of the queue, or stack your own, bento style, from pre-measured portions along the right wall.
Most people tend to take their boxes to go (in fact, Juan was inspired to inject something new into the ‘al desko’ offering after a decade of Bloomberg terminal sandwiches down on Wall Street). But you can also eat in, at the neat collection of tables indoors (or at the handful of chairs and benches outside, should the weather agree.)
The real pros, however, settle in for the afternoon, elbows engaged, at the octagonal bar. Juan himself can often be found to the centre-right of the brushed-steel counter. It’s a perfect vantage point over the food, towards the wide double doors, and out into the to-and-fro of central London in spring (you won’t miss him, with that hair or those suits).
As we finish our lunch, Juan doles out hellos and hugs to a cast of London’s great and good, and you can tell they’re here as much for the conversation and the bone structure as they are for the broccoli. Down on Hanover Square, they don’t say “let’s do lunch” anymore — they just meet at Nathalie.
Nathalie | Food On The Go
Want to hear more from Juan Santa Cruz? Here, the restauranteur shares his secrets for success…