Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Clerkenwell
You'll often hear it said that service in London restaurants isn't up to the standard of the USA, particularly New York. It seems natural to compare these two cities - both hugely important, with vibrant food cultures and each with a smattering of internationally influential restaurants and chefs - and it's fun contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of each; London for its South Asian cuisine and gastropubs, New York for its delis and sushi. But service is a tricky one. I'm all for good service of course; it can make the difference between a good meal and a terrible one, and I suppose the standard of service in New York is objectively higher - as you'd expect for the massive amount extra you pay for it. But it's perhaps because of this premium in New York that I often get the impression staff are trying a little bit too hard for their tips. I don't just mean in the completely over-the-top TGI Friday's "I'm your best friend for the next two hours" style, which is of course hugely embarrassing for all concerned - I also dislike the false joviality and over-attentiveness of staff in many more salubrious restaurants, being badgered to report back on the meal before I've barely taken a mouthful, or - as happened in one New York hotel restaurant a couple of years back - being told to "cheer up, it may never happen" as I tried to order.
And it was, sadly, that forced joviality and over-attentiveness from the staff at Bistrot Bruno Loubet that was really the only downside to a meal which was otherwise very good. It started as soon as we arrived, when the maître d', dressed like a stage hypnotist in a shiny black jacket and slicked David Copperfield haircut, cracked bizarre and unfunny jokes and attempted to engage us in "banter" instead of showing us to our table. Once eventually seated, we were subjected to the dreaded "how is everything" a few mouthfuls in, and various other pointless and irritating interjections occurred throughout the evening. If it sounds like I'm being oversensitive, then perhaps I am, but if it's enough to distract me from my food then something's wrong somewhere. Only the sommelier was a picture of professionalism, and matched my courses with some fine French reds by the glass without simultaneously trying his hand at stand-up comedy.
The food, then. My starter of snails and meatballs showed exactly why this place had been getting such rave reviews since it opened a few months back. A delicately constructed and earthily rich mushroom mousse sat surrounded by a handful of dense, porky meatballs and robustly flavoured snails. It was all dressed with some kind of pesto, which added acidity and lovely herby notes. The shapes and textures in this dish were deliciously addictive, and made a very satisfying start to the meal.
It's not often you see pigeon breast as a main course, perhaps because a single pigeon wouldn't make a very generous portion. I'm guessing two or three birds went into this dish, dressed with thinly-sliced cauliflower florets and toasted almonds. The jus was intensely flavoured and the pigeon itself gamey and moist and well seasoned. It was another good example of the use of contrasting textures to produce a satisfying whole, and in fact brought to mind the equally gorgeous rabbit and panchetta salad from Zucca a couple of weeks back.
Savoury courses were so generous and rich that we skipped desserts and instead ordered a minimalist cheese course of Cachel Blue and an Epoisses. Both were unfortunately fridge-fresh but still managed to punch above their temperature and were happily devoured. I do have an issue though with the toasted sourdough bread that came with the cheeses - I just don't think bread should be served with any cheese course; either serve plain crackers or nothing at all. If your cheese is good enough, you shouldn't need such distractions.
It's solely as a testament to Bruno Loubet's talents in the kitchen that we left his eponymous Bistrot very happy, but I couldn't help thinking that if the staff managed to turn the mateyness and quirkiness down a few notches we would have enjoyed ourselves far more. The arrival in London of New York levels of service is a thing to be applauded - as is this kind of restaurant (just look at Bar Boulud) - but perhaps it's the style of service that won't travel so well. So, a memo to the waiting staff of London: I'm not your best mate, I don't want to be "entertained" and if there's a problem with my dinner I'll be sure to tell you, there should be no need to ask. In the meantime, show me quietly and quickly to my table, bring me tap water by default and then stick to the shadows until needed. I promise you'll still get your tip.
This review was supported by restaurantvouchers.co.uk. Restaurant vouchers bring together all those handy printable discounts including Pizza Express vouchers, Toby Carvery Vouchers, Zizzi Vouchers, and many more.