19 January 2012
I am meeting Irvine Sellar, the extrovert and flamboyant Chairman of Sellar Property and creator of the Shard, for lunch at Corrigan’s of Mayfair.
Best for: A damn good meal
Nearest Tube: Marble Arch/ Bond Street
Irvine has a cheeky sense of humour and can be blunt as a lead pipe. My colleague, Nick Bartlett, says that he won’t be staying for lunch because he has a cold. Irvine winks and says, “Why don’t you go now then?” They chat about a deal, before Nick takes his germs elsewhere. Irvine is clearly no lover of colds. He talks to Nick leaning back, like a boxer dodging long jabs.
“You have a look at the menu, while I deal with him”, says Irvine, and I do. Luckily, the food at Corrigan’s is wonderful, starting with the cheese puff amuse bouche and the brilliant basket of breads. Richard Corrigan, the eponymous owner and chef, was born in Dublin and grew up on a small farm in County Meath. “It was 35 acres and gave me a respect and love of the hard work and skill of small, artisan producers. Mum and Dad both died in their sixties though.
The work was relentless, and that can wear you down.” He keeps his cooking close to his country roots: the best produce and ingredients supplied by a community of master artisans - Sally Barnes’ salmon, Frank Hederman’s smoked eels and Neal’s Yard cheeses. Corrigan is clear that cooking with these peoples’ produce is a privilege. He wants to create a perfect culinary platform for (say) Hederman’s extraordinary eels.
I warmed to Richard Corrigan as soon as I heard him say, “Butter and cheese are the foundation stones of good cookery.” I was struggling to stay on a low fat diet, but this epigram gave me the perfect excuse to give in, and to have a thick slab of butter on my soda bread. After all, as Bertie Wooster said, “What’s the point of a city being full of temptations if a chap doesn’t give into them sometimes? Otherwise, it’s a bit rude to the bally city that’s laid on all the temptations.”
As we order, Irvine tells a great story of one of his (many) acquisitions which shows his humane, wry humour.
“Back in the eighties, I bought a small company in double quick time. In the rush, we overlooked the (eighty- six year old) selling chief executive’s post-completion contract. It was in the data room, but our advisors missed it. The contract gave him £50,000 a year (a very generous slug in the eighties), a Roller, a driver and a PA!
So when we’d done the deal, I rang him up to sort it out:
‘Irvine, how are you?’
‘I want to talk.’
‘Love to Irvine, but it’ll have to wait ‘til I’m back off holiday - we’re flying to the Bahamas tomorrow’.
“When he eventually came back, I offered him £125,000 to go.
He said: ‘Irvine, when you buy a portfolio, you get some good assets and some bad assets. I’m one of the bad assets.’
“What could I do Bruce? I couldn’t help respect him for it. He stayed.”
I started with a tartare of Frank Hederman’s smoked salmon & oyster with crème fraiche, capers and oyster plant. It was fabulous, light and flavoursome. I’ve never been able to get the hang of oysters - always seem to me like slices of sea water and a most unlikely aphrodisiac. But they worked brilliantly with the smoked salmon. Irvine had the pumpkin ravioli and the potted Morecambe Bay Shrimps. He was pleased with it, which was good. If he hadn’t been, I think that the Maitre d’ would have heard about it.
Irvine is a consummate professional. He has an important meeting with investors later - so it’s no alcohol and no garlic. That takes quite some negotiation when your chosen dish is red wine garlic puree; line caught sea bass with salisfy, bacon and ceps.
But negotiation is no problem to the man who made the deal that’s built the Shard; the most dramatic addition to the London skyline since St Pauls. Irvine gets his garlic free sea bass and pronounces the food “excellent” and the restaurant as one “definitely added to my list.” My main course is pan-roasted Cornish scallops, Jerusalem artichokes & Pork Ossobuco. The crunchy saltiness of the pork complements the delicate white flesh of the scallops perfectly.
Now Irvine is a slim man, plays lots of tennis, runs about a bit; you get the picture. But me? Well, I eat desserts. I am particularly partial to carrot cake. This is the diet hypocrite’s perfect pudding. You can eat really unhealthily (butter cream, cake), but pretend that you are eating super healthily, like Gwyneth Paltrow (it is, after all, made of carrots).
So, you don’t need a PhD in food psychology to guess what I ordered: warm carrot cake, walnuts and honey ice cream. This dish was a work of genius; the best carrot cake that I have ever tasted: crunchy, dark rich cake, on a thin bed of sugared pickled carrots, with an ingenious salad of small, sweet carrots and a scattering of green leaves.
This dessert alone makes Corrigan’s a “must go” destination; let alone the Michelin starred brilliance of Richard Corrigan and Corrigan’s informal, cosy atmosphere (cheerily handing out warm Madeleines fresh from the oven).
Their customer service knows no bounds. The waiter spent an age sympathising with a lady sitting next to us who was complaining loudly that her beef had too much fat on it. Strangely, her dislike of the offending fat hadn’t stopped her eating every scrap of it. Yes, you need the patience of a saint, as well as the talent of an angel, to run a Michelin starred restaurant.
Irvine would have enjoyed the scene, but he’s already rushing out to meet more investors and do more deals. The food may have been dazzling, but for him nothing matches the excitement of building a Vertical City.
Bruce Dear, head of London Real Estate, Eversheds LLP