Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Claude Bosi at Bibendum, South Kensington

For what promised to be quite an occasion of a dinner, it's fair to say our evening at Claude Bosi at Bibendum did not get off to a great start. Arriving a few minutes before our allocated 6:30 booking (look, I like to eat early, OK?) the doorman seemed entirely unprepared for the possibility that not every guest will arrive precisely bang-on time, and ordered us into a holding-pen of an empty bar, where we sat cold and ignored as members of the downstairs staff tidied up around us until it was time to try our luck again with Mr Cheery in reception. Perhaps this is just as much Bibendum's fault as the doorman - they really need to work out where to put people who are a bit early, even just a chair in reception or being offered a glass of water or something - but even so, it hardly put us in the mood to enjoy ourselves.

Once upstairs though, safely past the bowler-hatted bouncer, the atmosphere was a lot more convivial. Firstly, and most obviously, it's an absolutely beautiful room, undoubtedly one of London's finest, and sat amongst the deep-blue stained glass windows and plush carpets even the eating of a cheese sandwich would feel like an occasion. Secondly, front of house are, each and every one of them, superb, and headed up by a guy (who's name I forget, sorry) who apparently worked for Sir Terence Conran in the same space when Bibendum first opened in the 1980s. Now that's some pedigree.

We started with cashews with malt vinegar powder. It's a sign of the amount of effort that goes into everything here that a clever cheffy technique was used on something as simple as nuts to go with your aperitif. These were obviously ridiculously addictive and I polished them off in about 30 seconds.

Next, a little bonzai olive tree with a couple of spoons of what looked at first like normal black olives. Of course, they weren't - they were very delicate frozen shells of olive juice, perhaps more impressive than delicious, but impressive nonetheless. I believe the original idea was to have them hanging off the branches of the tree itself, like a similar amuse at Catalonian gastro-temple El Cellar de Can Roca, except in early trials customers attempted to pluck the "olives" off the tree a bit enthusiastically and ended up covering themselves in black olive goo.

Then a little bowl of chicken skins and a sort of miso dip. Can't remember much about these, to be honest, but I can't imagine we left any.

These were gougère, beautifully warm and fluffy, and suitably easy to demolish. I've never met a gougère I didn't like, so they're either fairly easy to get right or only the very best operations even attempt them in the first place. I'm guessing the latter.

Miniature foie gras ice cream cones were next, expertly constructed little things, pretty as you like and dissolving in the mouth with plenty of good meaty flavour.

Next, curried pea and egg, which looked the part and no doubt took quite a lot of doing (there were multiple layers inside, of fudgy yolk, pea purée and fresh whole peas), but in which the addition of coconut rendered the whole thing a bit, well, offputting. For all I know, there is, somewhere out there, some combination of egg, coconut and fresh peas that won't make me wish I hadn't eaten it, but I'm afraid this wasn't it. Still, full marks for experimentation.

Fortunately, bread was on hand to make up for the coconut pea thing, and not just any bread - sourdough supplied by Hedone in Chiswick. It's become the Done Thing to automatically call this the best bread in London, and indeed at one time it may have been - however the competition is such now that I'm pretty sure I know a few other bakeries that could give them a run for their money. It's still great bread though, and the nice soft butter it came with was superb as well (and even better with a bit of salt on top from one of their weighty silver Bibendum cellars).

It's worth noting that at this point, we still had not been served the first of the 7 courses from the tasting menu. Whatever you think about the merits or otherwise of spending £200 on dinner, there's clearly a lot of work at Bibendum gone into providing extra bits and pieces, amuses and nibbles, and the pacing and style of service had been immaculate. I can think of a few restaurants - and one other in South Kensington in particular - where you could spend at least this and have nothing even so much as a chocolate truffle in addition to the three menu dishes you've ordered. Not so here.

So first course proper, then, was crab with elderflower jelly and sea herbs. This was, I don't mind admitting, the first time I've ever eaten crab and elderflower together, and also (not coincidentally) the first time I've eaten crab elderflower jelly. So perhaps my not being completely bowled over with it is partially the shock of the new. It got better as you dug down and the brown meat mixture at the bottom of the bowl became more prominent, but I still struggled to get past the strange floral/seafood combination. Interesting, but perhaps not an experience I'd want to repeat.

Hibiscus had a good line in asparagus dishes, and so it is here in South Kensington, with this thick meaty spear (sorry, I don't know what came over me), with a strip of confit orange peel and what's described on my menu here as "smoked hay hollandaise" but actually tasted more like a kind of thick hazelnut butter. Very nice, anyway, and I also appreciated the Claude Bosi signature knife that came with it.

It was a nice surprise on sampling this scallops with strawberry "sauce vierge" to discover that the scallops were warmed slightly; there's something about fridge-cold scallop that sets my teeth on edge, and yet in most places that's just what you get. It was also nice to discover that the herby, only faintly strawberry-led sauce that covered them was herby and complex; an attractive, and rewarding bit of seafood.

The next course was an absolute cracker - a beautiful bit of sea bream, geometrically exact with razor-sharp edges, sat on a rich morel and tarragon dressing. The fish itself, with its delicate crisp skin and firm flesh, could not be faulted, and the morel sauce was a classical and comfortable combination of flavours and textures. It's dishes like this that make rather a stronger case for tradition than outright experimentation...

Veal sweetbread, beautifully prepared with a thick, dark glaze of black garlic, was another crowdpleaser. Nothing too strange going on here, just a good slab of offal, cooked perfectly, and a pretty selection of mayonnaisey sauces to accompany it.

Then more veal - Limousin I believe, with a bit of pressed cucumber and a nice rich stock-y sauce. I'm always going to be more of a fan of protein that's been thrown on top of charcoal than teased into uniform pinkness in a waterbath, but it was still a very decent bit of baby cow, not earth-shatteringly interesting but very easy to eat.

And finally, a pea and chocolate cake, which sounds on paper like it might be the most disruptively experimentational dish of all and yet - in the face, it has to be said, of my own personal prejudices (I have a long, unhappy history with vegetables in desserts) - it turned out to be completely brilliant. The pea flavour wasn't jarringly savoury at all, it was just a faint sweet vegetal note, and the sugar levels were expertly judged as to make complete sense of it all. If I only had to eat one vegetable-as-dessert for the rest of my life, then it would have to be this one (though it's true there isn't a great deal of competition on that front).

It would have been easier in writing this post to either be able to make some blithe pronouncement to the effect that when Bibendum stuck to classical techniques and traditional flavour combinations then the dishes were more successful, or alternatively that when they had the courage of their convictions and tried something new the results were impressive. In fact, neither of these extremes are true. In end end, some of the experimentation, such as the pea and chocolate tart, was extraordinarily successful and something approaching an instant classic, while others such as the crab and elderflower, fell flat. And similarly, while the sea bream and morel dish used a tried-and-tested flavour profile to great effect, a rather humdrum bit of sous-vided veal didn't do much for me.

So it's hard to know what to say that's going to be any use really, other than it was all a bit uneven - some bits were great, other bits weren't so great, and it was all rather expensive. Actually, that sounds dismissive - it was, as I said previously, thanks to the huge number of extra bits and pieces, not cynically priced - but I don't want to end up having to use the word "uneven" on any dinner costing upwards of £200 a head, no matter how much fun I had at the time. And if someone came to me with £200 burning a hole in their pocket and asked where they should be spending it, I'm not sure Bibendum in its current form would feature very highly up the list.

But there it is, that's what a meal at Bibendum currently looks like and perhaps in the not so distant future I'll have reason to revisit and it will have really found its feet and become one of London's truly great restaurants. Until then, you're probably more likely to see me at the Ledbury or the Clove Club next time I feel like a bit of haute cuisine; it's hardly Bibendum's fault the competition in London is so fierce at the moment. But how lucky we are that it is.


Bibendum Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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