Monday, 3 October 2016
The Bluebird, Chelsea
When I first moved to Battersea waaay back in the summer of 2005, one of the first things I did (after buying some plates, cutlery, a toaster and a kettle from Asda) was wander over Battersea Bridge to check out the sights of Chelsea. The very first restaurant I saw as I turned the corner from Beaufort St onto King's Road was the grand edifice of the Bluebird Café, art deco home of the Bluebird Motor Company (1923), a former garage repurposed, as was the style in those days (see also Bibendum and the Wolseley) as a self-consciously upscale eatery. Sat outside enjoying a coffee in the sun was none other than Jean-Paul Gaultier, equally self-consciously dressed in his trademark black-and-white striped skin tight t-shirt, knowing full well the whole of the Kings Road had eyes on him as they passed.
It was the perfect introduction to this strange corner of London, glamorous and wealthy but with at least still a memory of the counter-culture that formed the heart of the swinging 60s. The Bluebird was - still is, based on my meal on Friday - a place first and foremost to strut about and be seen, and for that reason I never felt compelled to go in and see if the food was any good. But now they have a new chef, and a PR company who usually know what they're talking about, and so I was persuaded to take a spot amongst the high heels and hairdos and see what was up.
I can't tell you what the upstairs dining room at Bluebird looked like pre-refurb, but am happy to report that now it is genuinely beautiful, a vast room illuminated by generous skylights and clever use of foliage softening the more industrial shapes of the old garage. One side of the room boasts a panoramic view over the Kings Road, and - crucially - all chairs and tables are exactly the right height and very comfortable. Believe me, this is a detail you can't take for granted anywhere these days.
First impressions of the food menu were less knockout but made sense in the context of a restaurant trying to please as many fussy Chelsea types as possible - a few salads, familiar seafood, steaks, burgers. It threatened dishes "will be served as they are ready" but in reality things appeared more or less in the order we'd requested, albeit starting with a bowl of dry and bready "gougères", either stale or overbaked, with hardly a hint of cheese flavour. Not a great start.
Fortunately oysters were much more pleasant, not least because I found fully three (yes three) actual pearls. Now I have eaten a vast number of oysters in my time and never so much as found one, so to find three in a tray of a half dozen is, well, mind-boggling. My incredulous tweets were met with stats such as the odds of finding even one to be 12,000-1, so finding three in six quite rightly raised a few eyebrows, one person going so far as to suggest they were planted for PR purposes. But the way they were buried in the oyster flesh, attached to the muscle, suggested that I'd actually just been incredibly lucky. "You should buy a lottery ticket!" someone else quipped.
Steak tartare was also top-notch, and it was about this time that any early worries about style-over-substance and the populist menu began to fade. The cooking here, gougères aside, is very good, speaking of a great deal of classical training and proper command of flavour. Steak tartare is a very easy thing to get very wrong indeed, to the extent where you wonder why so many places still attempt it when the end result is often so inedible. Here though it was great, robustly seasoned and lifted with just the right amount of capers.
Whole roast black leg chicken & foie gras is somewhat conservatively marked on the menu as being "for two", but I am absolutely certain this vast bird with its drumsticks the size of turkey legs could comfortably feed four, making its £65 price tag slightly more reasonable. And yes, those really are two huge wobbly slabs of foie gras balanced on top, their juices rolling over the crisp skin of the chicken beneath and pooling in the base of the serving skillet forming a heavenly rich gravy to be soaked up with chunks of fried baguette. If there's one must-order dish at Bluebird it's this heaving beautiful-ugly pile of bronzed chicken and foie.
Given we stuffed ourselves to the brim with chicken and still had to take a kilo of goodie-bag home we obviously had to skip desserts. But there was still enough in what we did try to convince that Bluebird is, somewhat against expectations in this part of town, a Good Restaurant, and I would have no hesistation in recommending it to anyone, or indeed going back on my own dollar. It's not groundbreaking or life-changing, but there's a lot to like here, and there's not often you can say that about a restaurant in Chelsea. Oh, and I did play the lottery. £10 worth on Saturday night. I didn't win. But at least I've got those pearls.
I was invited to Bluebird.