Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Le Bouchon Breton, Spitalfields
The Bouchon Bordelais has been a fixture on Battersea Rise for as long as I've been living in the area, and I walk past its front doors almost every weekend on the way to the shops and stalls on Northcote Road. I went once, a few years ago, for lunch. It wasn't bad - they served nice skinny chips and I quite enjoyed my steak (this being before the time I really knew what good steak was) - but a friend's mullet was nasty (the fish, not his hairdo) and for the price I paid I decided it wasn't worth the outlay so I've never been back.
But a week or so ago I noticed a new menu posted outside the Bordelais. Kind of a cross between a French bistro and Corbin and King (the brains behind the Wolseley, the Ivy and others), it now has a larger selection of more varied dishes, from a simple bowl of soup to a 500g steak frites, much of it quite affordable and all of it, I have to say, very tempting. Turns out the Bouchon brand had been revamped by none other than M. Roux of Le Gavroche fame, and even has a sister restaurant newly opened in Spitalfields Market in the East End. And it was this new branch, named Le Bouchon Breton, that I visited for lunch Friday last week.
If first impressions were all that counted, Le Bouchon Breton wouldn't be at all bad. The room is airy and pleasant, having done the best they can with what is essentially a goldfish bowl on the first floor of a brand new office development. It's perhaps best described as a Parisien bistro reimagined by Norman Foster, but I liked the fresh seafood counter out the front and the atmosphere was buzzy without being oppressively loud. It's populated by an impressive number of smart "French" (more of that later) waiters with a ready smile and competent manner, and after being seated and presented with those exciting menus, I was on a high. I should have left there and then.
The first sign of trouble was that after our initial meet and greet it took us a good fifteen minutes to flag down a waiter to order, and when we asked for a bottle of house white he insisted we waited for the sommelier. We only wanted house white, and the intervention of the sommelier would hardly have convinced us otherwise, but procedures are procedures and pointless pretentious flummery is pointless pretentious flummery I suppose. After another five or ten minutes and the sommelier had steadfastly refused to appear, we managed to grab another waiter who took our order for wine without complaint.
There was yet more time for the hapless service to flounder during the food order. "Madame, s'il vous plait?" one began to a member of our party who happened to be French. Instantly she rattled off her order in her mother tongue, only to be interrupted mid-flow by the blushing waiter who quietly explained that he was, in fact, Russian and couldn't speak French. A sweet, and rather humorous incident you might think, but it just reinforced the impression that in the effort for that elusive notion of authenticity the management may have inadvertently just created a French theme restaurant. "Go up to people and introduce yourself in French", you can imagine the management saying. "They'll be too stupid to understand or reply, but they'll forgive all kinds of horrors with the food if they think this is how the French do it". Kind of a Gallic TGI Fridays, but with more expensive wine.
The food, when it eventually arrived, was only OK. My French Onion Soup had a great big crouton dissolving soggily inside it and had clearly been standing under a heat lamp for a while. It also had no toasted cheesy crust on the top, although the actual broth was satisfyingly beefy. It was no better than the £2.50 example you can get from the Eat sandwich chains on Mondays though. And my main course of lamb cutlets in rosemary jus would have been a whole lot nicer had they used decent meat - Hawksmoor, just around the corner on Commercial Street, serves the tastiest cuts of lamb in London for exactly the same price. Here they were fatty and tasteless and drowned by the strong sauce. Opinions around the table from my fellow diners were similarly mixed; a steak baguette was dry and uninteresting, the lobster bisque was overly creamy and didn't contain enough lobster. The overall impression was of a restaurant trying to increase its margins by cooking smaller amounts of inferior ingredients, and you have to have real skill in the kitchen to pull this off successfully. Le Bouchon Breton may have culinary genius M. Roux on its management team, but it's only with him in the kitchen that it would stand a chance turning out food worth paying for.
Perhaps it's silly to criticize a French restaurant in London for not being authentic, but the tragedy is that I can see what they are trying to do. Affordable bistro style food covering all bases, recognisably French and served in an informal setting - it sounds like most people's idea of a perfect dining spot. The fact that Le Bouchon Breton falls so short just shows how difficult it is to get that balance right. This may not be the last I see of the Bouchons - the £12.50 lunch menu is still generously priced and of course there's the revamped Battersea Branch that might yet win me back - but the experience on Friday lunchtime was summed up quite neatly by a fellow diner as she peered miserably into her insipid lobster bisque - "We should have just gone to the Fox again".