Monday, 8 December 2014
Bibendum, South Kensington
I sometimes get the feeling that the more the pace of restaurant openings in London quickens, the more of a creature of habit I am in deciding where to eat out. This is, for a food blogger, clearly a bit of a worry - I generally don't re-review places (and certainly not anywhere whose score hasn't changed), and as last month proved, it only takes a couple of unfortunate illness/power cut events combined with a dearth of new experiences elsewhere to make these pages look, well, a bit sparse. So although the gravitational pull of Bob Bob Ricard, The Dairy, Tayyabs, MeatLiquor and the other Top 100 (pluggy plug plug) are stronger than ever, there's still not much of an excuse, in a city as dynamic as this, to not at least make a bit of an effort to try somewhere new.
So this month I'm redoubling my efforts to get out there and visit some places that have been on The List (yes, I do have a list, it's on the Notes app on my iPhone but it's still a list) for way longer than they should have been. The only question was, where? And given the frightening number of options, how on earth do you decide? Then I remembered Uncover, a restaurant booking app I'd been asked to test out a couple of weeks previously. The idea (I think) is that it will keep a database of high-end or oversubscribed restaurants with last minute availability, so that if you want lunch or dinner somewhere nice that very day, it will throw up a list of options.
It's early days (the app is still in soft launch mode) but it's already quite a fun way of booking a meal. Searching from my house in Battersea (it's vaguely based on location) it offered lunch tables last Saturday at Medlar, Hawksmoor Knightsbridge and our eventual choice Bibendum, each of which I would have happily patronised. Admittedly it also suggested The Admiral Codrington (which has gone dreadfully downhill since burger maestro Fred Smith left) and Ametsa with Arzak Instruction which hasn't exactly set the world alight but I guess it was never likely to be exactly tuned to current critical consensus.
Anyway after a couple of prods at my iPhone screen and a bus ride, we were in South Kensington, settling into the plush dining room of what is surely one of the more beautiful dining spaces in London. Michelin House is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, stunning outside and in with its handpainted tiling, floor mosaics and stained glass windows depicting the proto Michelin Man in a variety of energetic activities - riding a bike, kickboxing(?), everything apart from driving a car weirdly. Perhaps it made more sense in 1911. Anyway, downstairs is the newly refurbished Oyster Bar in the cavernous (and rather chilly) main hall, and very popular it looked too, but we were booked in upstairs, an altogether more genteel (and warmer) environment.
The menu is a real crowdpleaser, priced as you might expect in these parts (£31 for 3 courses) but with thankfully just enough interesting sounding dishes scattered amongst the usual mid-high-end clichés (chicken liver parfait, haddock and chips with tartare sauce, you know the drill). House bread was from Sally Clarke and was a gorgeous baguette still warm from the oven. And look who provided the butter, M. Bibendum himself in what was once presumably an ashtray. I wonder how many of those go missing week by week.
Fennel soup was comforting and had a good light texture even if it was slightly underseasoned, but came with a couple of crunchy slices of anchovy toast which were incredibly moreish. If you've ever tried that Gentleman's Relish stuff you see in posh delis, try and imagine that only runnier and even more powerfully salty - I couldn't get enough of it.
The other starter was this generous fillet of brill, firm and relatively flavoursome in a creamy sauce that was again perhaps slightly underpowered but still enjoyable. Sometimes, a bowl of fresh white fish in a seafood sauce, served by smiling staff in a beautiful dining room, doesn't have to be anything much more than solid to make it all worthwhile.
Of the mains, cod with Swiss chard fritters and sauce "choron" (a Béarnaise with tomato added, apparently) was the more successful; in fact was very good indeed. The fish was absolutely stunningly white and split apart into moist flakes with only the most gentle of persuasion. The fritters added crunch, and wrapping up the fillet itself in more chard made it a bit like opening a Christmas present. Very festive.
My own duck breast wasn't much worse. Unfortunately, though, despite perfectly medium rare slices of nice moist bird, and with seasonal sprouts, pancetta and juniper as a very decent accompaniment, the whole thing was spoiled slightly by an incredibly powerful bitter orange sauce, which just seemed a bit clumsy. I did finish it though, so it can't have been that bad, and on the side was a little layered potato fondant thing, full of flavour and crunch, which I would have happily eaten again and again.
At the risk of sounding like a pastry pedant, doesn't the word millefeuille suggest at least two layers of ingredient? A couple of blobs of dark & white chocolate fondant inside layers of biscuit is only a millefuille if a bungalow is a duplex. Anyway, flavours were decent, and the boozy soaked cherries added a nice extra element.
Everyone knows what to expect from Christmas pudding, and this was a perfectly good example. The egg nog ice cream was nice, rich and vanilla-y, a clever extension of the brandy sauce underneath, but this was never likely to win any awards for Innovation In Dessert Design. It was a Christmas pudding.
So yes, there were bits that were less than perfect. But it's strange how it's only now as I impassively review the photos that I remember the errors here and there, whereas at the time it was all just so much... fun. Certainly that had something to do with the service, which never missed a beat, and the house prosecco which slipped down very easily, not to mention the booking process which didn't involve anything so annoying as having to talk to a human. But when you want a lunch experience to run like clockwork, and you don't mind throwing some money at it to make it happen (a bill of £130 for two is punchy perhaps, though not entirely unreasonable), this is when places like Bibendum, this grand old dame of Fulham Road, come into their own.
Uncover paid for this meal, or at least most of it (I went slightly over budget like I usually do). Here's a link if you want to try it yourself. Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon.