World’s Best Wine Lists award-winner Smith & Wollensky (S&W) London had been open just two years to the month before claiming a two-star award for its superb wine list in its debut entry. Operations director at S&W Nathan Evans has been pivotal in introducing the traditional American steakhouse eatery to London’s fast-paced dining scene. Not only is it the first of the US-based group to be launched internationally, but it has rapidly gained traction to become a coveted fine dining destination on London’s Strand. Evans has been in the industry for 25 years; having this experience under his belt has ensured a smooth transition and the preservation of S&W’s trademark high-quality continues across the brand, even with the expansion. WFW chats to Evans about S&W’s own-label Californian house wine, the real secret to their wine list, the time he persuaded Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to attend the Cigar Smoker of the Year awards, and their next London endeavor.
Congratulations on your two-star award win for Smith & Wollensky in it’s first-ever appearance in the World’s Best Wine Lists. Only 387 establishments in the world received this esteemed two-star accolade, how do you feel about being awarded this honor?
It’s an amazing honor and coincided with the second anniversary of Smith & Wollensky London, which was very poignant.
Smith & Wollensky is clearly very dedicated to its wine program; can you tell us a little bit more about it?
As Smith & Wollensky has always placed as much emphasis on both the selection and quality of its wines as it does its USDA prime, dry-aged steaks, it was important when we opened the first S&W outside America that the wine list stood out. Piecing together the USA wines was particularly challenging as the nature of the supply chain in the UK is complicated with agencies spread between many suppliers. The result was the requirement to have 12 separate supplier accounts in order to achieve the great US selection we desired. We then supplemented this with vintage stock of wines like Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, and Harlan from auction. For wines from the rest of the world we chose key wines from each country and region and blind tasted to find outstanding examples in each category. This involved days such as the now infamous Chablis-only tasting.
One of the greatest joys, even after 25 years in the restaurant industry, was to taste so many new wines pre-opening that undoubtedly broadened my horizons and challenged my palate.
The real secret to the list, however, is the training program we deliver to ensure every member of the team is not only familiar with the list, but also develops a greater understanding of the subject more broadly, with many destined to be the beverage managers and general managers of tomorrow.
What’s unique about the Smith & Wollensky wine list? And how often do you update it?
I feel it is a very diverse list, very strong on America as one would expect when bringing New York City’s favorite steakhouse to London. It also has some lovely surprises like the Patrick Vauvy, Sauvignon de Touraine, which was better than many of the Sancerres we tasted for a fraction of the price, and the delicious bio-dynamic wine “Cigalus” produced by former French Rugby player Gerarde Bertrand in the Languedoc. As for updates, like most things, maintenance is everything. We are constantly comparing price points with competitors, tasting existing lines when there is a vintage change, watching how global trends and consumer tastes change, and tasting wines from new regions, different blends, or single varietals. The wine business doesn’t stay still and neither should a restaurant wine list.
What’s the special cuvée and how did this come about? Was this designed especially for the 2015 London launch?
We are very proud of our two own-label wines and they have been a staple on our US lists for decades. The red is a Meritage and is a rich, aromatic cuvée handcrafted by Girard in Napa Valley, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. It is a non-vintage to allow the blend to retain its S&W character despite the ‘luck of the year’. Shades of plum and spice mingle with a hint of French oak. The warm finish lingers on the palate and it compliments a fillet steak perfectly.
The white is a Sauvignon Blanc that is crisp and fresh with citrus, ripe mango, and melon notes. Produced for us by Kunde Family Estate in the Sonoma Valley, it has good acidity and an extremely long finish, and pairs nicely with our fruit-de-mare platters.
How did the idea come about to bring Smith & Wollensky, a true American steakhouse in character, to London? How did you know this would be such a success?
We started Smith & Wollensky London with a license for Europe from the parent company in the US. The London branch was the brainchild of Leonard Ryan and Mark O’Meara, who had run sports broadcasting giant Setanta. Leonard and Mark had entertained across America and found Smith & Wollensky restaurants not only consistently delivered an outstanding product, but the service and attention to detail that was in its culture was the perfect recipe for a great event. Three years ensued to find the current location in the Art-Deco glamour of the Adelphi Building, just off the Strand, with ‘go-to’ restaurant design guru Martin Brudnizki hired for the interior. While the US restaurants provided a reference for the look and feel, we were also keen to retain the 1930s’ architecture in the design. In the two years since opening we’ve been the backdrop to some fabulous films and big budget TV series featuring in Netflix – The Crown, BBC Film – ‘Denial’, JK Rowling’s ‘Cuckoo Calling’, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the dramatization of Ian McEwan’s ‘The Child In Time’.
Back in 2016, our group acquired all of the US restaurants with the exception of New York which is still owned and operated by our founder, Alan Stilman.
As for ‘how did we know it was going to be a success’ – well we didn’t. The highway of restaurant openings is littered with broken down vehicles and write-offs. The Palm closed a few years after opening and London had already reinvented the Steakhouse genre with Hawksmoor, but we were confident that Smith & Wollensky had an international following. We knew that if we stayed true to the principals of USDA prime beef, dry-aged and butchered on the premises, served by waiters that knew the menu and the brand history inside-out, and we had a great wine list; we could succeed.
Despite the challenges faced by Brexit and foreign exchange, rising business rates and the uncertain political landscape, the business is growing exponentially and we are looking to open a second site in 2018.
How did you get to where you are today as the operations director for Smith & Wollensky?
How long have you got? I cut my teeth in City wine bars with family wine merchant Davy’s of London in the early nineties. The City of London was very different in those days, while only a few chalk-stripped, bowler-hatted commuters still walked over London Bridge each morning, much of the City was still very old-school and most of the bars in the Square Mile closed at 8pm. I found I had a talent for sales as a young general manager; I clocked up a long list of sales incentive competitions and was lucky enough to visit some of the great wine-producing regions of the world before I turned 30. Champagne, Rioja, Napa, The Hunter Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Cognac, to mention a few.
Nathan Evans and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Cigar Smoker of the Year awards at the Canary Wharf restaurant in 2014
After 15 years and a final position as an area manager, I left to join the home of Scottish hospitality Boisdale as the operations director, and later as the deputy managing director. I spent ten years with proprietor and raconteur Ranald Macdonald, who started Boisdale in 1985 at the age of 21. Ranald and I wanted to take on the world and for ten years, we had a huge amount of fun growing the business. In 2011 we opened the massive Boisdale Canary Wharf, brought Jools Holland in to curate the music program and booked big name acts to take to the stage each night as a back drop to great food, great wine, Europe’s largest whisky collection, and for those who liked to indulge, a fine Havana cigar on the terrace.
The highlight was definitely persuading Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to attend the Cigar Smoker of the Year awards in 2014 at the Canary Wharf restaurant, and receive the now prestigious ‘Cigar Smoker of the Year’ Award.
In 2015 I opened the first Smith & Wollensky outside of America and with two years under our belt the future looks good.
Do you personally have a strong interest in fine wine?
My first real experience with fine wine was working in a Cotswold hotel in my holidays while studying for my degree in the 1980s. The hotel was in receivership, but had an excellent selection of fine wine and Champagne in its cellar, many of which didn’t feature on the list. I bought a few second hand wine books and set about my education. I hand-wrote a connoisseurs’ list and began selling!
Above all, I love drinking it with good food and great company; it is one of life’s true pleasures.
What bottle of wine would you normally reach for?
What a difficult question! Well I’m writing this on a very hot Monday in June and I feel like reaching for a chilled bottle of Provence Rosé, but mostly I love rich, generous reds from the Rhone, or elegant old Bordeaux.
What’s next for you and the Smith & Wollensky brand? Any further international expansion?
We have a three-fold plan. The first has been to re-invest in the US estate and we have finished extensive refurbishments at our Miami branch on the beach and our Chicago restaurant on the river. We are relocating our Las Vegas business and looking to open two more US businesses in Orlando and San Diego.
The second is to open a simpler grill-concept in central London in either Canary Wharf or the City. This will appeal to a younger audience and be more accessible on price point without losing sight of our core focus around quality beef, wine and service.
Finally, we are looking further afield with opportunities presenting themselves in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Mainland China, as well as the Middle East. One thing is for sure, we are not slowing down anytime soon.
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