The story of Rabot 1745, our new restaurant in the heart of London’s food-obsessed Borough Market, is the story of the cocoa bean.
It sits beneath the wrought-iron arches of London’s Borough Market, on a traffic-sharpened corner of SE1 just by the Shard, but when you enter Rabot 1745, you are stepping a over threshold between urban and rural.
A sense that you’re now on a Saint Lucian cocoa plantation is not an entirely whimsical idea. You enter a lively bar, cafe and shop alive with the action of a busy plantation at work, the air crackling with the aroma of roasting cocoa beans.
“It’s a temple to cocoa,” says Angus Thirlwell, Hotel Chocolat’s co-founder. “The idea for this started growing eight years ago when we first bought Rabot Estate, our cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia.”
Rabot 1745’s menu and design are seedlings transplanted from ideas that first took root in the soil of the 250-year-old Rabot Estate, a beautiful but distressed Caribbean plantation that took four years to restore. The restaurant opened in November last year, becoming a unique new addition to the food paradise that is Borough Market. “This place champions the grower and it champions sustainable food, and we believe in that,” says Angus. “The people who visit the market are always open to new experiences and new tastes, and they’ll certainly find that at Rabot 1745.”
Rabot’s ingenious cacao-centric menu is inspired by our cocoa estate’s hugely successful restaurant, Boucan, which opened in 2011 amid cocoa groves that played a key role in its kitchen. It’s an entirely new kind of dining, and cocoa – not chocolate – is its real secret. Featuring contemporary dishes influenced by both the West Indies and Britain, roasted cocoa nibs are used throughout as a savoury spice, infusion and garnish.
“It’s only been in the last 500 years that people started adding sugar to cocoa,” says Angus. “For 3000 years before that, cocoa beans were roasted and eaten like nuts. So really we’re just restoring cocoa to its proper place in the chef’s pantry.”
The menu features unique harmonies of flavour, with cocoa nibs used in many ways – from Scottish scallops in curried cocoa nib oil to carrots roasted in cocoa butter, rib-eye steak served with cocoa nibs and red wine jus, and white chocolate mash.
The man behind the menu is Chef Jon Bentham, who pioneered Boucan’s hugely successful cocoa cuisine. Jon played a leading role in the renaissance of London cuisine in the 1990s as head chef for Gary Rhodes and Stephen Bull, winning Michelin stars along the way, before moving to Saint Lucia. He returned to the UK to lead the Rabot team as executive chef.
“It’s all about the nibs,” says Jon. “Cocoa has a savoury tone. It’s got a crunch like a nut, it’s got a hint of bitterness that goes well with other foods’ natural sweetness. And when people taste it, it fascinates them.”
“But we also use the rest of the plant as much as much as we can. The cacao pulp surrounding the beans in the pod is a great tenderiser for marinating chicken and beef, and it has a sour, tangy component. It’s also fantastic in cocktails, like the Fresh Cacao Bellini. It’s unique.”
Our intimate relationship with cocoa has not only inspired the Rabot 1745 menu, it’s also at the heart of the restaurant’s design. “Cocoa lives in two worlds,” says Angus. “We’re farmers and we get dirt under our fingernails in a rough and hard agricultural environment. Then we wash them and make this luxurious, luscious smooth chocolate as well.
“So we wanted Rabot’s design to link the two. We want to reconnect the world of cocoa growing with the luxury of eating it.” That was the brief given to interior designer Terry Moore, who created Hotel Chocolat’s first ever chocolate boutique 10 years ago, and helped conjure the ‘barefoot luxury’ atmosphere of our hotel and restaurant in Saint Lucia.
He divided the restaurant into two spaces to reflect the separation between the rough world of cocoa growing and the smooth world of the chocolatier.
The ground floor is deliberately agricultural, with a design infused with the raw edges of a cocoa farm. Almost everything has been recovered from a lifetime of hard work and put back to use: Tables and floors of weathered steel and oak reclaimed from an old mill, walls of rain-battered, corrugated steel in red, black and green, exposed brick and battered concrete.
It’s all designed to evoke the feel of a working plantation in Saint Lucia. “That’s what happens on a volcanic island at the equator,” explains Angus with a grin. “Leave anything outside and it gets rusted and weathered by the fierce heat, sulphur and salty air almost overnight.”
Two ironwood trees from our plantation, both felled by a hurricane in 2010, have been shipped over and transformed into beautiful furniture as tough as nails, including the rough window counter and the stools that line it, even a 12-seater private dining table upstairs.
Follow the striking neon restaurant sign and stroll up the wooden staircase, however, and the rustic mood begins to change. You are now entering the realm of cocoa luxury. “You become conscious that it’s different, like you’re stepping into a plantation mansion house,” says Terry, “There are luxurious upholstered leather walls and banquettes, and beautiful damask fabrics. It’s a very elegant, smooth space, warm and beautifully lit.”
Here the ironwood table has been polished to perfection with a highgloss lacquer. But the weathered exterior of the plantation still plays a part, in a delicately sculptured metal screen, and in the light fittings: rusted on the outside, but painted gold within.
Amid these exotic contrasts, mounted on the wall, sits a striking work of art. A triptych by the young artist Jessica May Underwood, who collaborated with our creative director Timbo Rennie to capture the spirit of Rabot Estate.
It’s a dreamscape, a romantic connection between the beauty and the source of cocoa,” explains Angus. “It’s the organic connection between the two, and that’s what we’re always seeking.”