Michael Blizzard, head chef at Avenue restaurant on how he brought the fine dining of New York City to St James’s. Words by Olivia Palamountain
London has much to thank the Americans for: Tupperware, traffic lights, and even crisps. But is anyone else bored of burgers? The dirty Americana food trend encompassing sticky ribs, sweet wings, and fried fancies has taken over as the capital’s go-to fuel. But there’s more to American cuisine than jumped-up McDonald’s, and a new wave of restaurants aims to prove it. Michael Blizzard, head chef at Avenue in St James’s is one man for the job. His sophisticated take on US home cooking uses elements of ‘dude’ food, elevated to another level as well as introducing some more unusual US elements. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 90s, this Belfast-born chef admits he was inspired to cook by the dearth of deliciousness at that time. Michael says, ‘I found that there weren’t many places to go and enjoy good food. It was better to make your own dishes and creations at home, and in doing so, I found that it was something I seemed to be naturally good at and enjoyed doing.’
Creativity often blossoms in adversity, but it was Michael’s move to New York that saw his career really flourish, and nourished his love of US cuisine along the way. Landing in the kitchens of American super-chef Daniel Boulud, Michael was encouraged to forget what he knew and play by American rules. ‘When I joined Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel in New York, he took everything I knew from past experience in other restaurants, threw it out the window and trained me again from scratch,’ says Michael. ‘He wanted everyone in his kitchen to do things his way, something that I admired hugely. Daniel’s mindset is all about good cooking, but he’s always one step ahead of the evolution of the restaurant industry.’
It seems this protégé of Boulud has developed the taste for the new and the next from his former employer – as well as some serious cooking skills. In control of his own kitchen, Michael is part of a growing movement to elevate US cuisine in the capital and show London that there’s more to Americana than burgers and fries. The antithesis of a diner, Avenue itself is a beautiful space, neatly capturing the buzz of the New York dining scene, with a nod to its London locale.
Originally designed by American architect Rick Mather in 1996, the interiors have been updated by designer Russell Sage, to imply a glamorous Manhattan loft space, offset with modern art and unique features such as the massive central chandelier, sparkling with wine glasses.
It’s certainly not the sort of room where you would be happy eating with your hands, but Avenue remains a breezy, chic destination for breakfast, brunch and beyond, with a menu to match its philosophy. Michael says ‘the main aim for me at Avenue is to give every guest who walks through the door a memorable experience, serving up sleek, enjoyable food to complement the glamorous décor and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant.’ I’m told that there’s also a new bar crowd taking residence during the week and over the weekend, which has inspired Michael to work on a bar snack menu to accompany the drinks. You’ll find a selection of sliders, mac ‘n’ cheese crisps and a great Reuben sandwich to go with the American cocktails on offer.
No surprises on the snacks, as it’s the main menu that is pushing boundaries. Alongside family favourites and USDA prime steaks, you’ll be won over by delights such as beef short rib ravioli with asparagus, pickled shitake and lime leaf, grilled baby chicken with citrus, maple syrup, and ginger and the awesome New York cheesecake with salted caramel. But what exactly is American cuisine and where does it come from? Constantly evolving and influenced by a range of cultures and flavours from across the globe, US cooking is just as varied as its multi-cultural population.
‘Our menu nods to these influences,’ says Michael. ‘The scallop ceviche has a Latin American edge, while the short rib ravioli nods to Asian influences. We want to incorporate a bit of everything like you’d see in New York dining.’
Despite London’s relative ignorance of American cuisine save the usual, according to Michael, it has always been sophisticated – but we’re only just beginning to realise it. ‘American cooking didn’t get the respect it deserved several years ago. Great chefs such as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jean Georges, who’s now at the W Hotel, have always been cooking outstanding food – the public just weren’t aware.’
Most definitely on the map now, Michael reckons London is on track for more tastes from across the pond. ‘American food has been burgeoning for a while now and I think it’s going to keep on growing.’ But trends change like the wind: in the 90s it was all about French cooking, Spanish stormed the 00s and now everyone’s in love with Americana. But, as Michael points out, ‘American food ties in with so many different types of cuisine and reflects so many different flavours, that no matter what the latest food craze – be it Japanese, Georgian or back to European again – there’s sure to be a popular American spin on it.’
It is a treat to explore authentic US flavours at Avenue in London, but what I’d really like to know is, where does Michael recommend to eat in NYC? ‘You have to go to DBGB – it’s Daniel Boulud’s diner-style restaurant and it holds more than 80 craft beers. Corner Bistro on 14th Street is amazing for a burger, and the gnocchi at April Broomfield’s Spotted Pig is some of the best I’ve ever had.’ If you can’t get to New York anytime soon, Avenue is about as close as it gets.
7-9 St James’s Street SW1A 1EE; avenue-restaurant.co.uk