Monday, 10 June 2019

Bob Bob Cité, The City

I should start this post with a kind of disclaimer. This will not be a normal review, partly because we didn't pay for any of the following and also because after so many years, and so many wonderful caviar- and champagne-soaked evenings in the glorious Soho location, the chances of my being even the least bit impartial about a brand-spanking-new Bob Bob are nearly zero.

So no, this won't be a normal review, but then Bob Bob Cité, like Bob Bob Ricard before it, is nothing like a normal restaurant, and almost defies criticism based on the usual criteria used for judging the success or otherwise of a place to eat. It's hugely reductive - and largely unfair - to say that not many people went to BBR for the food - they did, of course, because it was lovely, from their luxury fish pie glazed immaculately with the restaurant's logo, to their famous Eton Mess en perle which arrived in a meringue globe dissolved dramatically at the table. But even these theatrics inevitably played second fiddle to the extraordinary interior and rarefied atmosphere of the building itself, where every inch glowed with marble and brass, and backlit "Press for Champagne" buttons cooed seductively in the booths.

By employing the services of big-name chef Éric Chavot at the new site, Bob Bob Cité managed to grab a few headlines many months before their doors opened. Chavot won two Michelin stars when he worked at the Capital back in the day, and though I hate Michelin and everything they stand for, usually when on familiar - ie. French - ground, their bourgeois opinions aren't so easily dismissed. He is clearly a great chef, whose style fits around the super-luxe Bob Bob aesthetic wonderfully, and whose food would be a reason to visit even if you were to enjoy it in a reclaimed knackers yard under a railway bridge. They've upped the food game, in fact, to such a degree that it now stands alongside the best of Henry Harris' uber-gastropubs (the Coach in Clerkenwell, the Hero of Maida or the Crown in Chiswick) for this kind of thoughtful, precise, classical French cooking.

So let's stick with the food for a bit. This particular evening began with a glass of Krug champagne and 20g of Russian caviar because that's absolutely how all evenings should begin at Bob Bob. Presumably Chavot didn't have much involvement in this, or the excellent warm baguette which arrived at the same time, but whoever opened the caviar tin and poured the champagne did an excellent job. Service, needless to say, is just as sparkling as it is in Soho.

French Onion soup was the first real Chavot dish, and he played an absolute blinder. I can find quite a lot to enjoy in even quite a humble FOS, but when treated to good beef stock, and aged Comté, this classic really shines. One word of warning though - the next time I tackle one of these in a white T-shirt, I'm going to tuck a napkin down my neck. Because once the final morsels of glossy, beef-soaked caramelised onions had been mopped up, I looked like I'd gone for a swim in the stuff.

Duck egg "au plat" was a kind of posh brunchy affair, with a huge fried duck egg resting on top of addictively salty cubes of cured beef and pickled veg. One minor criticism that cropped up was that the advertised "Gruyère and truffle foam" played rather a subdued role, and though I'm sure Chavot put exactly the amount of "Gruyère and truffle foam" on the plate that he thought fit, I'm afraid when I'm promised "Gruyère and truffle foam", I want a lot of it. Otherwise, this was very lovely.

I love that Bob Bob Cité have snails on the menu, partly out of the usual foodie compulsion to appreciate the most unusual or unlikely ingredient on a menu, but also because I love the idea of eating such rustic French fayre in such an unlikely situation. They arrived, admittedly, slightly more fancied-up than usual, beneath a soft potato foam and studded with crunchy bacon bits, tasting earthy and rich and wonderful in their vivid green parsley sauce. Perhaps the French do know a bit about cooking, after all.

There are few more satisfying starters than steak tartare, and Bob Bob Cité's version has plenty to recommend it - good aged beef, the perfect balance of shallots and capers, a lovely soft quail's egg on top - even without 10g of Siberian caviar on top to turn it into the "Steak tartare impériale". Completely ludicrous, of course - I mean who on earth takes a perfectly decent dish and slaps a tablespoon of caviar on top - and yet, because this is Bob Bob and if anybody can get away with it, they can, it works. The seafood and the beef create a kind of extravagant surf'n'turf, every bit of it a joy.

Beef Wellington made great use of a different bit of cow - 35-day-aged fillet - presented first as a whole inside pastry, then taken away to be plated. Perfectly pink inside, once draped in truffle sauce it became the platonic ideal of a beef welly, immaculately executed and basically unimprovable in any way.

Lobster thermidor always struck me as a slightly bizarre thing to do to fresh seafood. I have a lot of time for many of the fine dining clichés that have been handed down through generations of mistachio'd and toque-hatted chefs - pommes Dauphinoise, tournedos Rossini, blanquette de veau to pick just three other Escoffier recipes - but loading a halved lobster with bechamel, egg yolks and cheese seems like a good way to simultaneously ruin both a cheese omelette, and a lobster. That said, the person who ordered this had absolutely nothing but praise for it, so perhaps I should wind my neck in.

Dover sole, served on the bone and topped with an interesting array of capers, gherkins and lemon, fell apart into nice meaty chunks and ate every bit as good as it looked. Classic French class.

Even sides were exemplary. Truffled mash was about 80% butter, which was entirely welcome, chips had a fantastic texture, crisp on the outside and creamy within, and some grilled hispi cabbage arrived charred and in a cloud of woodsmoke, as if it had just been lifted from the bonfire.

I'm not sure what happened to my photography in the final moments of my meal at Bob Bob Cité but there's every chance the surplus of champagne served to make me a little distracted. I have (vague) memories of being similarly... distracted after a vodka tasting evening at the Soho location, so clearly this is just something that happens when you put yourself in their hands. Anyway, desserts (as far as I know) were, like everything that came before, very French and very good. Rhum baba was soaked in alcohol (this is a good thing) and lemon meringue had all sorts of clever techniques happening at once, and bags of flavour in the lemon curd.

That's the food, then - all of it at least intelligently conceived and expertly constructed, a masterclass in French haute cuisine that lives up to every last penny of the rather 'haute' price points. People will come to Bob Bob Cité for the food, because it's great, and because fancy French, done as well as this, is almost a novelty in London in 2019 - blame changing trends and fashions, but also (mainly) blame rubbish hotel restaurants charging way too much for pretty poor examples of it. Eric Chavot's cooking is definitely worth the journey.

But if the food has stepped up a level, incredibly the design of the new place exists in a different stratosphere. I've been in some pretty fancy restaurants in my time, but Bob Bob Cité's extraordinary interior design feels genuinely otherworldly, like it's been lifted from some idealised futurist paradise. There's the attention to detail you'd expect from their fanatical approach to everything, from the dot-matrix display that ticks round the ceiling like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the local traders, and the hand-painted tableware emblazoned with an exquisitely tasteful font. But from the leather booths to the polished Art-Deco-by-way-of-Asgard chandeliers the place just sparkles. Just moving through it is like taking a mood-enhancing drug, one room in various brilliant shades of blue, another shining in pink and red. And as a backdrop to all that, floor to ceiling windows that provide a sweeping view over the Leadenhall's vast atrium and surrounding architectural marvels (the Gherkin, and the Lloyds building are neighbours). It's like eating and drinking on the set of some utopian Sci-fi. There is absolutely nothing else like it in the world, I'm sure.

So come for the food, by all means. Treat yourself to caviar and champagne, indulge in escargots and flat fish on the bone, and baked cheesey lobster. You'll enjoy it. You will. It's great. But if you agree that a large part of the, for want of a better word, experience of eating at the original Bob Bob Ricard is to be swept up in the grand theatrics of the room, resisting - and failing to resist - pressing the Press for Champagne button one last time, of knowing you're spending too much and drinking too much but never wanting it to stop, then I should warn you, this new site will test your resistance even further. If Bob Bob Ricard is the very definition of luxury, Bob Bob Cité is the future of indulgence itself - the new benchmark by which, from now on, anyone aiming to provide the ultimate restaurant experience will be judged. At any new opening across any of the bewildering number of new buildings that have swept across London in recent years, no matter how extensive the fit-out, no matter how big name the chef, expect to hear some variation of the following: "Well, it's good," they'll say, "but it's no Bob Bob Cité."


We didn't see a bill for any of the above, and given how much Krug and caviar was consumed, it could have been well north of £200/head. But it's worth pointing out that they do a chicken pie for £21 so you could go in, order that and a glass of Picpoul and escape for around £30. You won't do that - nobody will - but, you know, you could.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, South Bank

After so many years eating and writing about restaurants, I tend to flatter myself I can tell the good from the bad with a quick glance at a menu. And on paper at least, the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe is boldly and assuredly exactly my kind of place. Starters of English asparagus and duck liver custard, mains of wild garlic broth and rabbit with nettles, unusual strictly seasonal ingredients in interesting and tasteful combinations, it was clearly constructed by people who love eating and know how to express that love in words. I got as far as "Ox cheek & spelt risotto, cured bone marrow" before deciding my search for dinner on the South Bank was over, and ventured inside.

Things began well enough. Front of house found us a corner of a large sharing table to use as the rest of this large, bright restaurant was at capacity, which was nice of them, and cocktails were, if not entirely brilliant ("Rhubarb Negroni" had too much Campari and seemingly no rhubarb, and something called "Spring, Where Art Thou!" was too sweet), then at least enjoyable. By the time we'd ordered food, the mood was very much one of cheerful optimism.

Until it arrived. Firstly, a spelt risotto which looked the part until you realised the spelt had a very strange texture, possibly from some kind of mistake in the cooking process but I won't even bother trying to guess what, making it all a bit, well, slimy. Without the weird sliminess it might have been OK - it was all seasoned properly and it was a sensible portion size - but the shredded ox cheeks just got lost in the mush, and it wasn't much fun to eat.

Asparagus were even more upsetting. Presumably at one time these had been nice fresh vegetables, but having been grilled a long time ago, and left in the fridge, they were presented cold, chewy, and utterly lifeless. God knows who's idea it was to serve "chargrilled asparagus" fridge cold, but they need a serious talking to. Lardo was nice enough, and some lightly dressed salad was edible, but the "truffle jam" didn't seem to contain any truffle and had its bland sweetness didn't do anything to compliment anything else. Also it's worth noting both starters arrived barely a minute after we'd ordered them - how long had they been sitting around?

Any weak hope the starters were anomalies was crushed with the arrival of the mains. A dish of rabbit, nettles, artichoke and lobster should have me purring with delight, but the ballotined rabbit was a strange pasty texture, tasting only of the ham that had been used to wrap it, lobster was overcooked, the tail portion chewy and the claw hard, and the whole thing was barely above room temperature. Disappointment barely covers the emotions I felt as I glumy picked my way through it.

Brill - twenty six quid's worth of it - arrived accurately cooked, but entirely unseasoned, and was similarly difficult to eat. "Rolled leeks" were chewy and unpleasant, "Champagne sauce" is probably supposed to look like cuckoo spit but presumably not taste like it, and a large poached oyster heaved on top of the whole thing just looked clumsy and bizarre. This was not good food.

So what on earth happened here? How can a set of dishes that worked so well on paper, that made such exciting reading, turn out so dissapointing in reality? Ordinarily I'd walk away from an experience like this saddened and frustrated but completely baffled - with so much effort clearly having gone into the sourcing of ingredients, it makes no sense that there would be such a disjoint on application. And I would have remained baffled - £63 a head lighter, and baffled - had a few days later the subject of my dismal dinner came up in conversation with a friend. "Oh yes, the Swan poached Simon Ulph from the kitchens at St Leonard's. He spent ages reworking the menu and introducing some exciting new dishes, only for the management to say they wanted to start doing sandwiches. So he left."

Now, obviously take any such anecdotes with a pinch of Maldon salt - there are few less reliable sources of information than restaurant kitchen gossip - but you have to admit, it provides a rather neat explanation to what happened on Friday. A (by all accounts) talented chef is brought in to revamp a menu and reinvigorate a kitchen. He's barely started, possibly not even given enough time to fully train his team on the new dishes, when management have a fit of the nerves about the experimental direction the new chef is going in, and completely change his brief. Said chef leaves, and we're left with a "ghost kitchen" with a menu full of dishes nobody really knows how to cook.

Oh well, these things happen. I'd had such a good run for a while, I suppose I was long overdue a bad meal. If nothing else, it's taught me to look out for Simon Ulph's next move because I really want to know if that rabbit, nettle and lobster dish lives up to the thing I've invented in my head, and I do hope the Swan manage to get their kitchen back on track, with or without the sandwiches. Meantime, I can only suggest you avoid the place.


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Small Holding, Kent

The rise of the rural farm/gastropub has been one of the more notable food stories from the last few years. When once it would have been enough to namecheck your butcher or fishmonger, or make some vague promise to "work with local suppliers", perhaps growing a handful of herbs in a windowpot if you felt particularly Felicity Kendall about things, these days if you're not raising your own chickens, keeping your own honeybees and up at dawn foraging for wood sorrel and wild garlic then you really need to pull your socks up. You mean you buy in your edible flowers? Must do better, darling.

The Small Holding in Kent, then, is right on the cutting edge of this do-everything, holistic approach to fine dining (I'm not sure how they feel about the fine dining label, but I think anywhere serving a 9+ course tasting menu, albeit at the relatively barganous £50/pop, is fine dining) and the sheer effort to which they've gone to produce absolutely as much as they possibly can, is pretty impressive. In a relatively small patch of land are squeezed polytunnels of tomato plants, sweetcorn and strawberries, raised beds of fennel, carrots and radish, cauliflower, cabbages and chives, neat rows of broad beans and garden peas growing up bamboo supports and alongside all the vegetables a large chicken and duck enclosure, and a pig pen occupied by half a dozen rare breed Berkshire pigs. On top of this, we were taken just outside the grounds of the restaurant itself to see where wild strawberries, edible thistles, and a dozen other bits and pieces that would find their way into our lunch, grew in hedgerows on the edge of a small wood.

It's an idyylic spot, of course, lush and green and absolutely ideal for an operation like this, and it's tempting to think that you could just pull stuff out of the ground, shake off the soil and serve it and you'd win a couple of AA rosettes by default. But though this stripped-back approach may have some fans amongst chefs with regard to prep time, fortunately Will Devlin the head chef at the Small Holding has done his time at Michelin-starred central London hotel restaurants and with the Gordon Ramsey group at Pétrus, and knows exactly the best way of presenting the bounty on his doorstep.

Lunch began with a few nibbles on the terrace, including a couple of radishes that we literally saw being pulled out of the ground a few moments before they arrived trimmed and washed and sat in a little herb mayonnaise. So perhaps there is a place for the ultra-stripped-back approach after all. They were lovely little things - crunchy and with a sweet, cucumber-y flavour in place of the usual pepperiness.

Pork gyoza were nicely crisp and dry, and contained a good amount of pork. Something stopped me from asking if this was from one of the same pigs we could see happily truffling through the mud at the end of the allotments. Perhaps just in that moment I'd rather not have known.

And these were incredible - a citrussy, fluffy goat's cheese inside a delicate beetroot meringue casing, which dissolved in the mouth and released a beautiful hit of vegetable and dairy all in one go. I know beetroot and goat's cheese is a pretty tried and tested combination, but there's no point denying yourself such treats just because they're familiar. I mean I'm quite familiar with cheese on toast, too, but I'm not about to get bored of it any time soon.

Normally when running through a tasting menu like this I try and point out which elements are grown by the restaurant and which are bought-in, but at the Small Holding it's easier to do the opposite. So from this mini hot dog of caramelised carrot and kimchi, I assume only the miso was sourced elsewhere. But who knows, given their attention to detail elsewhere it wouldn't surprise me at all if they fermented their own soy beans. Very good it was anyway, meaty and rich with a nice note of chilli.

Asparagus from a farm up the road came pressed inbetween punchy slices of a local Camembert-style cheese, and were draped in translucent slivers of lardo. Very fine ingredients indeed, and topped with some wild garlic flowers, sweet and allium-y rather than overwhelmingly garlicky.

The next course was a bit of an experiment, and I don't think was part of the usual menu. This was not, as it first appeared, a slab of foie gras but something called "Foie Royale", developed in Amsterdam to be a cruelty-free alternative to foie. It still contains real goose, but the fat and normal (ie. non-artificially fattened) liver are pressed together under high pressure to create something if not quite exactly like the real thing then close enough to perform as a perfectly adequate cruelty-free option. I think Will just had some in and wanted to know what we thought of it, and it was nice enough although I think if I wanted an alternative to foie gras I'd be more inclined to go down the chicken liver parfait route. Still, it was interesting, and the beetroot purée and fresh yoghurt it came with were both excellent.

Next a beautiful slab of halibut we'd seen be delivered earlier that day, with a lovely golden crust, surrounded by various peas and herbs. All I ask with dishes like this is that the fish is seasoned properly and not overcooked, and that's not always a given. This was immaculately treated.

The next course kept up the high standard of raw product, but there's part of me wishes the chicken had been as warm as the egg yolk on top, rather than quite chilly. Still, it all had a great flavour, and I loved the wild garlic pesto.

Spelt bread belied its rather unassuming appearance to have a quite brilliant texture and taste - "spongey" isn't often used as a positive adjective but I mean it as a compliment here, as the crumb had a structure at once dense and supremely easy to eat. With it were chicken skin butter, and if you can eat chicken skin butter without enjoying it there's something wrong with you, and - somehow even more impressive - a wild garlic version which was, like the flowers on the asparagus course, sweet and vegetal instead of overtly garlicky.

Well into the main courses now, and I could see what they were trying to do with this slow-cooked pork jowl and white beans, it just didn't have quite the depth of flavour to lift it above merely "decent". There was nothing particularly wrong with any part of it - the pork was nice and moist, the beans soft and pleasant, but the sauce was a bit thin and it needed a more concentrated stock to really make it shine.

But we were soon back on track with this hogget, presented as a pink fillet and braised shoulder (I think, or leg) which had all of the concentration of flavour missing from the pork, and then some. This dish made the most of a clearly wonderful main ingredient (from a farm down the road, as if you even had to ask) by treating it to one of those lovely split sauces the best restaurants do so well, and some foraged cabbage-style plant (your guess is as good as mine) for iron. Absolutely brilliant, every bit of it.

Desserts began with a beetroot ice cream topped with ants, and in case you're one of those people still on the fence on the whole issue of edible insects, let me assure you that these made a very positive case. The acid (formic, I believe) in their abdomens provides an acid hit somewhere between lemon juice and the stuff that makes Haribo's sour, and if you've ever polished off a whole pack of those in one afternoon (don't deny it), you'll know how addictive that can be.

The main dessert was a strawberry sorbet with some macerated strawberries. All fresh out of the garden, all very lovely, but the way they'd done the sorbet deserves a special mention, as it was studded with some kind of wheat or oat that meant every mouthful turned into a kind of strawberry-flavoured paste in the mouth. I thought the effect was quite enjoyable, but in the interests of balance I should point out that my lunch companion really didn't get on with this texture experiment at all. Full marks for trying something new, though.

After some local blue cheese and a selection of petits fours, that was it, and even if you remove the foie gras dish from the above which as I said I think was extra, that's still a huge amount of incredibly good food for £50 a head. Even the cheese is included in that, which seems more than generous to me. In fact we were enjoying ourselves so much that despite the restaurant very kindly covering the cost of the food, and taking the time to give us a tour of the gardens and foraging routes (they do a foraging course/lunch experience for £145/person), we still managed to rack up a booze bill of £100/head. But hey, you know, no regrets.

On the train back to London, as the effects of the glass of local brandy wore off, I tried to think objectively about where the Small Holding fits in amongst the many kitchen gardens and gastropubs that are springing up around the country, each striving to offer a more intensely local, strictly seasonal experience. The idea of starting a farm just to supply one restaurant is possibly not new, and of course there have always been the Manoirs and Moor Halls with millions to throw at a walled garden with team of full-time gardeners to keep it all running, but the ambition and attitude of the Small Holding does genuinely feel like something new, a self-contained virtuous circle of excellent produce turning into top-quality dishes, all organic and self-sustaining, with wild plants and herbs growing alongside cultivated vegetables, with nothing to decide what makes it onto the menu other than what's the absolute best on the day. I wonder if one day there'll be a backlash against all this, and the trendiest new opening of 2021 will be a city-centre gilded palace serving nothing but tinned Spam, but until then it's places like the Small Holding I'm going to look for inspiration, the true future of regenerative agriculture and farm-to-table eating, and a bloody good feed into the bargain.


We were invited to the Small Holding and didn't pay for the food, but covered drinks ourselves.