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Sarah buitendach chats to david higgs and gary kyriacou — The d ..Read more
Saint, David Higgs’ new pizza and Champagne restaurant in Sandton, is an inspired combination of simplicity and high style, simultaneously chic and tongue-in-cheek.
Behind the bar at Saint, chef David Higgs’ new restaurant in Sandton, the wall is animated by a huge sculpture by artist and product development maestro Damien Grivas. It’s a kind of deconstructed Renaissance statue, broken up and reassembled as a faceted installation. In the bathrooms, the basins take the shape of giant cupped hands, also Grivas’s work. In the restaurant itself, the ceiling features a vaulted dome onto which 3D images are projected – some based on Renaissance frescoes, others with more current imagery. The front of the wine cellar is a contemporary stained-glass rendition of windows in Italian cathedrals.
Apart from the opulence of it all, there’s a clear theme that holds these extravagant gestures together: the contemporary interpretation of classic Italian art and design. It’s as if Old Italy has been taken, shaken up, transported thousands of kilometres and hundreds of years, and reassembled in a modern South African setting.
Saint looks out over the JSE and its surrounds from The Marc, Sandton’s latest gobsmacking glass edifice on the corner of Maud and Rivonia roads. It might serve pizza, but it’s not just any pizzeria. It’s a collaboration between chef David Higgs and Gary Kyriacou, who launched Marble, with its inspired take on cooking with fire, in Rosebank a few years ago. Once again they’ve taken something supposedly simple – a grill at Marble, pizza at Saint – and given it a contemporary spin along with some masterful culinary treatment. (The delicate Neapolitan-style pizzas are thin and slightly chewy, cooked for just 60 seconds in specially imported gold-mosaiced pizza ovens, and there’s also pasta and offerings from the grill.)
The interiors of Saint are the brainchild of Gary’s wife Irene Kyriacou, who worked closely with the Reddeco team to realise their spectacular Pazzo Italiano (crazy Italian) design. Irene says the angled pillars of The Marc, which seem to pierce the restaurant space, brought to mind the columns of classical architecture. The volume of the space also has a classical grandeur. “I immediately thought of the Sistine Chapel and those palazzos with beautiful frescoed ceilings,” says Irene.
The setting in the rapidly transforming, energetic commercial precinct of the Sandton CBD, however, prompted a “modern take on classic Italian”. Hence the combination of high-tech projections, fragmented figural forms, and abstracted stained-glass patterns. Also, any thought of faux authenticity has been banished (although the chefs did travel to Milan to learn their craft). “We’re a South African Italian restaurant,” says Irene, “so how do we bring about out our own unique story?”
At the entrance, a hand-woven tapestry designed by Sarita Immelman with Grid Worldwide (who did the branding for Saint and worked with David and Gary at Marble, too) depicts “an African angel kissing a mythological creature”, as Irene describes it. The passage at the end of the restroom features a photographic artwork by Krisjan Rossouw of a majestic African woman in period dress. “It’s quite tongue in-cheek,” she says. The hostesses who greet you are dressed in David Tlale.
The idea is that, although the interiors are dazzling, the mood is casual and fun – an elevated experience to match the menu but one that’s energised rather than intimidating. Irene uses word like “playful” and “sexy” to describe the tone, which she’s interpreted in the furnishings by “mixing the Renaissance with a little bit of ’50s retro, mid-century”, capturing that bright boldness in the fabrics.
Many of the furniture pieces were specially designed for the restaurant – Irene collaborated with the likes of David Krynauw, Guideline and Thabisa Mjo of Mash.T Design Studio. Other elements are also drawn from local makers: Laurie Wiid van Heerden of Wiid Design and Ngwenya Glass collaborated on the water glasses; the terracotta pizza plates are from Rialheim. Much of the lighting is imported.
Like the concept of combining pizza and Champagne that inspired Saint, the interiors work with inspired contrasts. The result fosters the sense of playful escapism that makes a restaurant a destination.
David Higgs and Gary Kyriacou complete each other’s sentences. They do that thing where one starts to say something, takes a breath and, without missing a beat, the other continues the thought.
Cozied up to them both, in the linen-booth seating at their first restaurant, Marble, I tease them that all signs point to a real bromance. They laugh — in sync, obviously — and chirp me right back: everyone says that, apparently.
Of course, it’s more than a love story. It’s simpatico. Which is ideal, given that the duo — one half star chef, one half big business type — are the men behind two of the most talked-about restaurants in the City of Gold.
There’s Marble, with its fire-cooked fare, ridiculously swanky interiors (the loos!), and a view that extends across to the West Rand on a clear day. It’s where the Big Smoke’s who’s who go to celebrate, be seen, and woo. Their new kid on the Sandton block, Saint, has been open for a few months, and you’re unlikely to get a table there unless you book way in advance. Swarms of Sandton office types descend on this vast Italian joint for lunch. At night, the in-crowd manifest for burrata and bubbly.
It all sounds outrageously glamorous but, when you’re employing around 300 people between two locations and you’ve got to deal with everything from stock management to staff issues, it is, well, not.
Especially given the environment in which they’re working. “People aren’t opening restaurants at all, never mind huge ones,” Kyriacou says sagely when I mention the economy.
But they have. Twice.
The partnership came by way of Higgs, then running 500 at The Saxon, selling his house, and meeting up via connections because of Kyriacou’s property business, Century 21 South Africa.
“Gary was immediately serious about the concept I had for a restaurant — he wasn’t going to just throw money at it. It impressed me,” Higgs says.
That was the easy bit. Marble’s construction was delayed by months. “We cancelled thousands of bookings, but eventually we just had to open. We simply couldn’t keep turning customers away,” both men explain.
It got worse. “I still think I have post-traumatic stress disorder from the opening night,” says an ordinarily robust Higgs. Everything that could go wrong did.
Opening Saint was a breeze, by comparison. Between the two projects they started a high-end butchery below Marble. It didn’t bring in the cash, so they closed it quickly and moved on. It’s still the space were the vast fortune of meat is kept for both restaurants.
With hindsight, the two laugh about it a lot. Kyriacou remembers Higgs lying on the floor the morning of Marble’s launch, screwing chairs together in a state of utter panic. In turn, Higgs recalls how, initially, patrons thought Kyriacou was the maître d’. Two years on, and he’s still inundated with hundreds of text messages and calls to his cellphone for reservations. “I pass them all on to the actual bookings team,” he says, laughing.
What’s next, I pry. “Just let us catch our breath and we’ll see,” they say, pretty much in unison.
Higgs’s new recipe book and memoire, Mile 8, will be out soon.
‘It’s not poncy and hushed. Instead, it’s expressive and simple, and so are the surroundings, the music and the people. But it’s a big place and it fills with energy, both in the kitchen and on the floor,’ says chef David Higgs. Situated in the financial district of the trendy, upmarket Sandton neighourhood, Saint Pazzo Italiano is the impressive new Italian-concept restaurant by Higgs and Gary Kyriacou, owners of Marble restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
The space is housed in the city’s newest multiuse development, The MARC (named for Maude and Rivonia corner). It flanks the Maude Street entrance of the building with the gold facade, in all its black, gold and glass glory. And it couldn’t be in a more fitting location. Where Rosebank attracts the arty, older, and more established crowd, Sandton is intoxicating, energetic and sexy.
On a busy Friday afternoon, you’ll be lucky to get a table.
The restaurant heaves with the business crowd entertaining clients and sealing deals, lunching couples and friends. Here, you could be grabbing a quick bite over a working lunch by day and quaffing cocktails or dancing in heels by night. Higgs has clearly described Saint quite aptly.
The inspiration for the pizza, pasta and Champagne restaurant came from a recce the business partners went on as part of their planning and research for Marble two years ago. Pazzo Italiano, meaning ‘mad Italian’, is the reference, and quite appropriate for an eatery that might have an Italian feeling and serves pizza but is neither an Italian restaurant nor a pizzeria.
No small detail has been overlooked here. Tables are adorned with uniquely shaped gold-plated cutlery, pink water glasses made from recycled glass (a collaboration between Ngwenya Glass and Laurie Wiid van Heerden of Wiid Design), leather bread baskets imported from Italy and flamboyant gold feather lamps from the collection of A Modern Grand Tour in the UK.
This is the work of interior designer Irene Kyriacou, who was inspired by her visits to London, Amsterdam and the Maison & Objet Paris trade fair. Working closely with interior architecture and design practice Redecco, Kyriacou has created a space where a distinctly Italian Renaissance influence meets a highly modern and contemporary feel. She says husband Gary wanted them to push the design references a bit further, which is why the modern technology aspect comes through so strongly.
‘We also worked very closely with [design agency] GRID, who helped us come up with the name and refine the concept. It’s a push and pull between good and evil. The idea is that good people deserve good food – and naughty people do, too,’ says Kyriacou.
The main restaurant space features flooring in terracotta tiles by Wolkberg Casting Studio, double-volume glass windows and marble pillars draped with greenery. 3D projections of classic moving art enhance the ceilings, and the wine cellar is made with custom-made stained glass.
Enter the sommelier, 27-year-old Wikus Human. The 2017 title holder of Moët & Chandon’s Best Young Sommelier of the Year worked his way up from manning the front desk at Forum Homini hotel to being a sought-after wine fundi.
Saint is very much about encouraging people to eat pizza and sip bubbly and, accordingly, has invested in a Bermar Champagne-preserving system that keeps the bubbles in a bottle for up to two weeks. The objective is to allow Saint to serve Champagnes on a trolley – Pol Roger, Moët & Chandon, Laurent-Perrier, Lanson and the like, by the glass.
Human, who splits his time between Marble and Saint, with six demi-sommeliers under him at the latter, says most clients welcome recommendations. ‘They know we aren’t there to push expensive wines, but rather to suggest those in their price range that will complement their food.’
With an ever-changing menu driven by the freshest seasonal ingredients, Saint is becoming known for its Neapolitan pizza in particular. To learn how to make it authentically, head chef Matt van Niekerk and chef de partie Tyler Clayton visited Italy and worked alongside pizza masters Gino Sorbillo and Gennaro Rapido of Lievito Madre al Duomo in Milan. Also on offer are pasta, risotto, meat and fish dishes, gelato, chocolate, affogato, and more. Marble regulars will be pleased to discover that a Grillworks wood-fired grill has also been installed at Saint, so they can expect to enjoy the same smoky flavours here that they relish at Higgs’ and the Kyriacous’ first restaurant. The bathroom is another talking point. As soon as you enter the dark space, your eyes are immediately drawn to an arresting, illuminated photographic artwork by Krisjan Rossouw of a black woman wearing a gold headdress. The handbasins in each of the unisex toilet cubicles are sculpted hands by Damien Grivas, who is also responsible for the oversized, deconstructed sculpture that overlooks the bar, where patrons can choose to lounge and enjoy their drinks while listening to the latest local and international tunes.
Amid the kitchen’s spitting fire, the chef shouting orders, tables chatting and celebrating, music spinning and sommeliers and waiters offering top-class service, the soft, sensual and romantic design details combine to make Saint the perfect space for both revellers and serious foodies.
Visit Saint Pazzo Italiano, Shop UR 18, The MARC, Rivonia Rd, Sandton; saint.restaurant for reservations.