I'm rather envious of the address of Ella Canta, the new restaurant by celebrity Mexican chef Martha Ortiz. Located at No. l Park Lane, the Mexican dining room is located in the InterContinental hotel that overlooks Hyde Park Corner. Despite Theo Randall's excellent pasta at his eponymous restaurant in this hotel, I can't say that this is a hotel I often frequent. It hasn't got the charm of Claridge's or the aesthetics of the Rosewood.
Ella Canta - translating into 'She Sings' - has by far the better setting compared to Randall's Italian, with floor to ceiling windows that give diners views of the crossroad that brings Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Piccadilly as one. Large circular lenses of textured glass, inspired by the work of Mexican artists Feliciano Bejar, distort the flashes of red from the passing Thomas Heatherwick-designed Routemasters following their designated routes around the capital.
Ortiz's restaurant in Mexico City, Dulce Patria, features in the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants and she's famed for her use of colours in her cooking, which she says is how she portrays her femininity - being a successful chef, especially in a Catholic country full of macho male chefs, is something she feels very passionately about.
London has had a flurry of decent Mexican restaurants open over the past year, including Breddos, El Pastor and Santo Remedio. However, Ortiz, 47, is the first to have a restaurant in Mexico and then open in London.
It's also the first time in a while that David Collins Studio has designed a restaurant in London. The studio, famed for the interiors of The Wolseley and the Connaught bar, has worked closely with Ortiz on the project; it was overseen by The Studio's creative director, Simon Rawlings.
On the day I visit, Rawlings is dressed in a crisp, khaki suit with a pair of designer sneakers, overseeing a photo shoot. He welcomes me in through the restaurant's own entrance off the street (something all hotel restaurants should have). One of the first things to catch your eye in the reception area is the start of a 45-metre walnut wood carving that runs the length of the restaurant - inspired by Mexican furniture designer, Eugenio Escadero. Even to my novice eye, it's clear that a lot of money has been spent to make the former site of the Cookbook Cafe look like this. Handmade Mexican 'amate' wallpaper lines the walls behind custom lighting that bask the space in a warm, soft glow - the sort of light one can imagine at dusk in Mexico.
I notice that Ortiz has arrived and is inspecting her restaurant. She's dressed in a pair of fitted black trousers and a crisp, white shirt with a large collar and flowing cuffs - I cannot decide whether this is her take on a chef 's jacket - and a chunky pair of high-heeled boots. Her hair is tied up and she's wearing a fierce shade of red lipstick. She walks through the different sections of the dining room - that go from blush pink, sun-bleached red, blue and tan, inspired by the architecture and landscapes of Oaxaca - looking at the crockery that has been set on the table, dismissing some cut-glass water tumblers as they're too formal. Tablecloths will not be a feature at Ella Canta as every single table-top in the restaurant has been finished in hand-crafted eggshell, ivory and black lacquer that is trimmed with walnut - a nod to the Mexican pottery by Gustavo Perez.
The decor of chef Ortiz's restaurant is far more distinct than the other parts of the hotel. She has worked very closely with David Collins Studio blending tradition with modernity, and using mid-century references in the design and furniture. The strong shapes, soft colours and clean lines in the restaurant have been influenced by the architecture of Ricardo Legorreta.
Ella Canta is opening at a time in London when our restaurant scene is flourishing and Mexican cuisine is gaining more prominence - Londoners have moved on from TexMex. At the time of writing, I have yet to dine at Ella Canta, so I cannot comment on whether Ortiz's food sings. However, its interiors certainly do.
To be thrilled by a surprise is an increasingly rare event - a threatened notion, even. We need to be careful. A life without surprises is a safe, grey and mundane region.
On the corner of Hyde Park Corner, there is a very beautiful surprise. Never judge a book by its cover, or the books that surround it. The imposing grey masonry and precise geometry conceal, deep within, a jewel of Pacific breeze cool. The restaurant is confidently independent from the hotel despite being architecturally adjoined.
Ella Canta is the exquisite London outpost of Martha Ortiz. It is difficult to determine where Martha ends and Ella begins. Ella Canta was designed by a team led by Simon Rawlings. Even by the standards of David Collins Studio it took a long and exhausting time to imagine, design, negotiate and realize this unconventionally alluring otherworld.
That the investment of emotion, intellect and sheer physical commitment resulted in a series of spaces that don’t look overtly-designed is, perhaps, a signature of both Ortiz and Rawlings. Design can often over think the beauty out of an idea. To effortlessly avoid this is a signifier of truly consummate aesthetic instinct.
It takes a very short time to be transported from the reality of Hyde Park Corner to a parallel region of languid sensuality and verdant exotica. This sleight of sense is the culmination of the collective effort of chef, designer and studio, where something rare and enthralling exists. All of the passion, danger, wild energy and overwhelming colour of her beloved Mexico is composed and corralled with couture production levels.
An interzone, exquisite and difficult to define. Too instinctively emotional to be formal. Too ceremonial and dramatic to be casual. But one that is singularly beautiful.
A home to serve cuisine which shifts one's perception and understanding of the taste and intoxicating fragrance of Mexico. It is a Mexico of Luis Barragan, Maria Sabina and Holy Mountain. A Mexico where Frida Kahlo is more than a tourist emblem. A world away from the monotony and grease of Tex-Mex compromise. One where colour, poetry, music and sensual abandon are served with acute intensity and passion. Where they are served with love.
Martha has an intense, almost fierce, animal grace and a restless instinct. To see her in this room is to see an artist in a studio, a poet in a study or a director on a deserted set.
Graham Erickson: So, why London?
Martha Ortiz: I am Mexican. I am passionately proud of my country. I am committed to showing the beauty, magic and drama of Mexico to the world. I adore London and see a lot of similarities between it and Mexico. So, really, the decision formed itself.
GE: Do you always get so involved in the design process?
MO: I am not a person who can simply retreat and observe. I like to learn and I like, also, to collaborate. My restaurants are a manifestation of me so there is no way I cannot be a part of the process from beginning to where we are now. I say that as I think design processes never really end. I would also like to think I have absolute respect for all collaborators. I hope!
GE: Does Ella Canta look, and feel, how you initially imagined?
MO: It looks exactly as I imagined it. This is, of course, a result of the skill, instinct and intelligence of the David Collins Studio team.
GE: You explained why London. Why David Collins Studio?
MO: Well, that is answered in the last question. I immediately felt confident that Simon truly felt the emotional intent of Ella from our first conversation. This passion and understanding remained throughout the process. This is very important when a project of this scale begins to become real. Then, of course, it is fantastic to know that the creativity of The Studio is paired with a very strong commercial responsibility.
GE: Restaurants often compliment and harmonize with location. This part of Mayfair, though, is an odd place to find a surge of wild, passionate contempt for convention. Was this a conscious decision?
MO: I wanted to create a restaurant in London. The opportunity arose and it felt very right. Like something that was meant to be. Whilst I love London I did not have a deep knowledge of Mayfair. I always had in my mind what Ella would be regardless of how the neighbourhood behaves. There is a wildness about Ella but also a charm. I think the neighbourhood is fond of her! I now, of course, know a lot more about the character of the area. I have strong beliefs, though, that a restaurant should not simply blend in to its location. It should be different. A restaurant should be where memories are made. A restaurant should therefore be confidently distinctive and proud.
GE: London has never really been served well with Mexican cuisine. The clichés of the food are bundled up with lazy ideas of what Mexico looks like. You seem to be a one person guerilla on a quest to reset people’s ideas and perceptions of Mexico. Are there any more future ideas to continue this revolution?
MO: Well, as I have said, I am recklessly passionate about Mexico. I love restaurants. I am currently working on a very exciting, theatrical project in Mexico. It is a collaboration with Daniel Liebsohn who is a fanatical collector, with an impeccable eye, for Baroque-Colonial Mexican art. The idea will reveal his home as a very beautiful experience which blurs the lines between restaurant, art and theatre. There is a lot to do but it will be very beautiful.
GE: Where, now, is home to you?
MO: Always in Mexico. Not because I do not love other places. But Mexico is my absolute soul.
GE: What is your single favourite feature, detail or moment in Ella Canta?
MO: The screen, I just adore. I never tire of looking at it. It has a charming femininity and a very cool sixties chic. The wood is exquisite. It already has softened and appears more rich and beautiful every day. It is simple but complexly beautiful. It looks fascinating when humans pass behind it. It gives it a subtle cinematic feel. I love it!
GE: There is something cinematic about Ella. As research I watched Holy Mountain by Jodowrosky. I am, beyond this, a bit lost on Mexican cinema and culture. What are some Mexican films I should explore?
MO: Well, they are not really authentic Mexican films but that is not important to me. I think The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth, both directed by Guillermo Del Toro, capture the perfect strange play between the light and the dark, the magic and mystery of the Mexican psyche and of Mexico itself. I am an unapologetic fan of Guillermo. There is an interview where he is asked how he can create such dark work yet be such a happy light person. His response is simply, “I am Mexican” – I totally understand his beautiful answer.
I had never met Martha. I had visited Ella Canta three times before the above interview. Every time the restaurant was vibrantly humming. Singing, I guess. Busy, which of course is the point.
This time I went at 10:00 on a Monday morning. This time the entrance had the strange exoticism of an abandoned, but beautifully preserved, imaginary Embassy for a fictitious, sub-Tropical, country. A utopian state where aesthetic delight, sensuality and pleasure were a part of the manifesto. Such places don’t really exist. Empty of people, the restaurant has a gorgeous tranquility.
Enter Martha. To the minute punctual. We begin talking and we discuss, in no strategic order, the following:
Shamanism in its true, ancient and magical form. The sensuality of Mexico which is present in everything from food, architecture to religious iconography. Mexico as a country of wild extremes. Wealth, poverty, overwhelming femininity and heroic, almost arrogant, masculinity. Lush colour and dark shadow. We discuss Frida Kahlo. We talk of the extremes, contradictions and devastating allure of her. A savage, androgynous fire of desire. Filthy, nicotine fingers, the cloy fug of medicinal opium, the punished elegance of her clothes. The essence which bewitched those who fell into her presence. Food as theatre. As art. The Mexican reverence for myth, legend and mysticism. The miserable touristic, credit card version of Shamanistic ritual. The third eye sight seers and weekend visits to enlightenment.
She urges me to go to Mexico. I, slightly scared, tell her I have been to New Mexico. She gives a look somewhere between pity and disdain, and then laughs. Then smiles. Her hands fill in the blanks when a word, in English, gets stuck. Her hands look as capable of holding a baby bird without hurting it as they do of wringing the venom from an ornery snake. She shows me the devastating portrait of her with Ricardo Legoretta. Taken by Guillermo Kahlo, the photograph defines the tough, savage, dignified sensuality of Mexico. The feminine power and the masculine strength.
She is present in every colour, detail and reveal of Ella Canta. She provides a perfect example of the client as vital element in significant, beautiful design.
She steps out for a cigarette. I quickly search online for flight prices to Mexico City.