Bishop's Stortford's newest restaurant, Atkins, opens for business in former Lemon Tree premises
Bishop's Stortford's newest restaurant, Atkins, officially opens its doors today (Wednesday, February 26).
Chef patron James Atkins and his partner Daisy Conn, who is in charge of front of house, have been working round the clock to reopen the former Lemon Tree in Water Lane.
Over the weekend, family and friends enjoyed the fruits of their labours with a soft launch.
The waiting team and five-strong kitchen brigade were put through their paces with a series of practice services. Guests included Luke and Sue Fishpool, who formerly ran the much-loved Lemon Tree and encouraged James and Daisy to follow in their footsteps.
The young entrepreneurs – who both attended Leventhorpe School in Sawbridgeworth and started dating when they both worked at the town's former Goose Fat and Garlic restaurant – are keen to respect the restaurant's heritage while adding their distinctive flavour.
For example, wine merchant Wilks & Co of Rayne, which supplied the Lemon Tree, is James's vintner of choice. Former assistant manager Ash Millward is returning to be Daisy's right-hand man after a surprisingly easy recruitment drive for staff via Facebook.
James, 32, said: "People know what I'm like. I work people very hard and I expect 1,000%, but I respect my staff and they give me that because they know they'll get it in return."
Since November, when they picked up the keys from East Herts Council, which owns the property as part of its plans for a cultural quarter at Old River Lane, they have been consumed by the project, which is their home as well as their business.
Daisy, 27, said: "We work better together than when we have separate jobs."
James added: "I'm anxious and excited. It's been stressful but it's good stress and it's all coming together."
They had hoped to open just after Christmas, but a series of leaks – including a burst pipe in the cellar which "sounded like Niagara Falls" – and electrical issues in the grade II listed building took a toll on their timetable.
But now the restaurant is ready to be officially unveiled. Its smart French navy door heralds a chic interior with the same colour on feature walls, burgundy accents, gold lettering and original art.
Menus featuring classic dishes as well as new vegan and vegetarian creations have been prepared.
Options vary from butter-poached lobster tail and claw in a saffron cream reduction starter to a main of tofu tikka and beetroot curry, and banana semifreddo with maple and hazelnut brittle to finish.
"I think a lot of people will be surprised by the vegetarian and vegan dishes we've put on the menu," said Daisy. "James has put a lot of effort into sourcing the ingredients, but we still have favourites like lobster and fillet steak."
Her favourites are monkfish and scallops with prawn butter and a rump of lamb, served pink with a carrot and horseradish puree. They will be reviewing their offering after six weeks or so to see which are the crowd-pleasers.
While James is in charge of the menu, the rest of Atkins' evolution has been a joint effort. When the couple embarked on the project, they set up a family WhatsApp group so their nearest and dearest could pitch in.
Their parents and siblings have been a tower of strength and support. As well as sourcing original artwork, James's mum Lesley and her partner Keith, a painter and a decorator, have rolled up their sleeves and spruced up the interior. Brother Daniel's partner Jasmine Paradine-James, a graphic designer, is responsible for their branding. Daisy's mum Debbie is in charge of keeping the restaurant spotless while sister Millie has joined the waiting staff.
Both Daisy and James have lost their fathers, Steve and Martyn, and the restaurant has been a chance both to pay homage to them and to celebrate new life and opportunities.
Atkins' New York-themed party room downstairs is named after Cleo, Daisy's niece born in September 2018, while the upstairs private dining room, with a 12-seat table and bespoke vinyl record place mats, is named after James's niece Orla, born in November 2019.
James said: "Our dads would be so proud of what we're doing."
The chef patron previously worked at Alec's Restaurant in Brentwood, The Rising Sun in High Wych, McMullen's Brewery and the Green Man in Lindsell.
Atkins is just the start of his ambitions. He aims to add another eatery to his fledgling empire within five years.