Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge
"Have you ever heard of Daniel Boulud?" I naively asked my friend, a New Yorker. Her snort of disbelief could have been heard across the Atlantic.
"Of course! Daniel Boulud is famous!" she replied, "He's one of the best."
She's right, of course - even his Wikipedia entry describes him as a "famous French chef" - but in that curious way in which the United Kingdom and the US seem to share obsessions with musicians and movie stars but very rarely chefs, he's barely known over here. Despite all the fuss over Jamie Oliver's America in the UK press, I have it on good authority that your average American wouldn't know him from Adam. I kind of envy them.
But if you don't know who Daniel Boulud is yet, you will soon. The opening of Bar Boulud, tucked neatly underneath the grand pile that is the Mandarin Oriental Knightsbridge, is Boulud's first UK restaurant, and has been greeted with the biggest fanfare and whirlwind of frantic blogging since, well the last big new mid-range bistro opening (Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell). First impressions of the room are pretty good - a faint whiff of new paint still lingers but the low ceilings and open kitchen create an informal and attractive space, and the staff - present in huge numbers - are friendly and eager to please. That is, until they caught sight of a camera.
"Excuse me, sir, are you from a magazine?"
This question wasn't directed at me - I had my usual iPhone. If attractive, properly composed shots of food started appearing on this blog I'd probably give half my readership a coronary. The offending camera, an impressive looking digital SLR, belonged to a friend of mine and had provoked the attention of a nervous senior waiter.
"I will just go and have a word with chef and make sure it's OK for you to take photos."
And so he scurried off. Moments later, he was back.
"It is fine as long as you don't take any pictures of peoples faces."
Not even our own? Anyway, that was that. I suppose it makes sense that the only restaurant in years to raise the taking of photos as an issue was one that was not only based very much on an American model, but has also brought a number of its employees over from New York to handle the launch. Blogging is, in common with most things internet-related, far more established and commonplace in the States and the backlash against uppity amateurs arranging complex and time-consuming shots and annoying other diners with powerful flash photography has - quite rightly - begun in earnest. I've done various bits of press defending bloggers' (and diners') rights to take photos of the food that they've paid for, but I think using flash and tripods and demanding special privileges is not only unacceptable but potentially damaging to the currently fairly good relationship between us and restaurants.
There, I've said my bit - now to the food. To share between the three of us we had a small portion of the famous Boulud charcuterie board, containing slices of a number of different terrines and hams, and a boudin blanc on truffled potato. The charcuterie was excellent value, containing premium meats of all kinds and a liberal application of foie gras, and it was hard to fault any of it. Highlights were a herby "pulled rabbit" terrine which had a lovely rosemary hit, and a lamb "tagine" containing a complex spice mix that Tayyabs would have been proud of. The boudin blanc was soft and rich (although I didn't detect much truffle in the truffled potatoes) and even the pickles stood out thanks to their strength of flavour and sweet/vinegar balance.
Three pieces of glistening pork belly arrived "compliments of the chef" while we were tucking into our charcuterie. At first I assumed this was some kind of opening week promotion or it was simply an extra handed out to all diners, but it very soon transpired that someone front of house had Googled my name, found the blog, and now Daniel Boulud himself was sending out dishes he felt we should try. All very flattering of course, but I mention it only as a kind of disclaimer - the service we received is probably not the norm. That said, I'm buggered if I'm going to start booking under a pseudonym.
My main was a roasted chicken breast with wild garlic and artichokes. With great crispy skin and nicely seasonal, this was a comforting and rustic dish of classic French bistro food - the kind you really don't see very much of in London at all. A friend's burger, the Piggie (containing pulled pork), was perfectly proportioned and - take note Grand Union - an ideal size for eating with your hands. The Frenchie burger, though, was on another level. The use of strong Morbier cheese, not an idea I would normally entertain in any burger, actually enhanced the flavour of the aged beef, and wonderful crispy confit pork belly stood in for a bacon slice. It was brilliant, but - full disclosure again - it was on the house, as was another plate of sausage, this time a rich boudin noir. And there's nothing like a freebie to enhance your dining experience.
Boulud himself is, as you might imagine for a man who made his living out of hospitality, charm itself. Appearing at our table a couple of times during the meal, he mentioned he was having "forty or so" chefs over that evening for an opening week party.
"We have quite a guest list. Would you like to see?"
He wasn't kidding. Joel Robuchon, Pierre Hermé, Shane Osborn, Claude Bosi - almost literally every top chef in London and most of Paris. If a bomb had been dropped on Bar Boulud last night we would all be eating Pret sandwiches and McDonalds for the next few years. Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver weren't on the list but were apparently "expected", and although Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett were coming, there was no sign of Big Sweary himself. I can kind of see why. I briefly thought about sitting out the next couple of hours at the bar to watch the procession of food celebrities arrive, before scaring myself with the realisation I'd even considered it.
We finished with a couple of nice macaroons each (presumably Hermé's work) and asked for the bill. It came to £170 for three, which was pretty good value considering the location and pedigree (we'd had a couple of bottles of wine and some of us had coffee) - Bar Boulud is hardly a budget option but is not charging anywhere near as much as it could for cooking of this standard. The big question mark hanging over the whole evening, though, is would I have felt the same if the eager front of house hadn't Googled me and given us the whole VIP treatment? I'm not delusional enough to think that one bad review on one blog out of hundreds is going to make much of a difference to their bottom line, but clearly someone somewhere thinks its worth their while to 'research' their guests and tailor service accordingly. Last night, I was flattered and pathetically grateful. Once the novelty wears off, I'm not so sure. And how does it reflect on a restaurant if they aren't treating everyone the same?
I suppose the most important thing is the food, and if I was to judge the place just on the quality of the product coming out of their kitchens, then I'd still recommend it. I can try and tell myself I imagined that awkward transition between the suspicious attitude of the staff pre-Googling and the transformation post-Googling, ignore the free dishes and the attentions of the head chef, and after all that the burger and charcuterie selection is still up there with the best of them. Boulud has brought a welcome slice of New York generosity to London, and if that comes with a side order of Yankee-style internet media acumen then perhaps it's just something we'll have to get used to. You certainly won't find many bloggers complaining.