LDNER #178: MERLIN LABRON-JOHNSON
This week’s LDNER is Merlin Labron-Johnson, an ambitious young chef who successfully opened his second restaurant Clipstone earlier this year. We loved the new place, so took the opportunity to chat Merlin about London, his restaurants and his plans for the future…
Where do you live in London and what do you love about it?
I currently live in between Stockwell and Vauxhall – just off South Lambeth Rd. There’s a really beautiful mix of cultures here. The little stretch of South Lambeth Rd near my flat is covered in Portuguese and Brazilian bars, cafes, shops and restaurants and everyone speaks Portuguese to each other. It’s easy to forget that you are in England, there’s also a strong gay community around Vauxhall, a 24-hour club scene and a big west Indian community towards Stockwell. These people co-exist harmoniously between leafy almost suburban residential streets with beautiful Georgian houses, high-rise council flats, parks and community gardens. It’s ugly and charming all at the same time. I’m about to move to Haggerston in east London, which is a whole different world.
It’s been a busy 18 months – opening two restaurants and winning a Michelin Star for Portland, how’s it been for you?
Intense. It’s hard to have perspective when one is in such a bubble of work and constantly living off adrenaline. I’m immensely proud of the two restaurants and everything the team has achieved since the beginning but to really appreciate what we’ve created I’d need to take a really big step back. I know it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been extremely lucky to find myself surrounded by the loveliest, most talented group of people I could ever dream of working with.
You’ve opened Clipstone, which we loved. How does it differ from Portland?
It’s a completely different dining experience. We wanted create something with a neighbourhood vibe, the kind of place you might go to spontaneously to eat a meal that is delicious but wholly accessible in terms of price and presentation. The dishes are designed to be shared, the noise levels and music are a little louder, the service is a little bit more brisk but with the same warmth and attentiveness that you’d find at Portland. It’s more of an everyday bistro than a special occasion restaurant. We put as much love and care into the food but we try and use slightly less luxurious ingredients – more vegetables and cheaper cuts of meat. It’s the kind of place I’d love to eat in myself!
What are the plans for the future? Would you like to open another restaurant in a different area of London?
Of course I’d love to open another restaurant and I’m sure I will but right now I’m focusing on Clipstone – fine tuning it and helping define it’s identity and also taking Portland to the next level. These are two huge projects that are still babies in terms of their existence as restaurants. I feel like longevity is key in this highly competitive industry and it’s all about making sure that your restaurant is as exciting in 8-10 years as it is now. There’s a lot to be thinking about.
Finally, what would be your perfect day in London?
It’d be a Sunday and I’d wake up around 10 and head to Italo for breakfast. Italo is a cute little deli in Bonnington Square, Vauxhall and belongs to a man called Charlie Boxer who is the father of my friend Jackson and son of renowned cookery writer Arabella Boxer. I’d order a flat white and a sandwich. From there I’d head east and potter about Columbia road for a bit before having lunch at Brawn. Brawn is my ideal restaurant, natural wine, beautiful, light and spacious dining rooms, informal service and food that could not possibly be improved upon. After that I’d wander down to Sager and Wilde for some more delicious wine. Then onto Victoria park to meet some friends and lie around in the sun. Once the effects of the afternoon’s wine have worn off I’d track down a Boris bike and head to Broadway market for dinner (maybe Hill and Szrok) from there I’d cycle along the canals up to Islington and find a cosy little pub on a quiet street where I can put my feet up, enjoy a whisky and perhaps a game of cards. I’d probably call my parents at this point or one of my brothers. I rarely find time to speak to them during the week so I always try and catch up on a Sunday evening. After that it’s time for bed. Early night on a Sunday as I’m preparing myself for another crazy week!
5 Clipstone St, W1W 6BB