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 maƮtre 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 Restaurant vouchers bring together all those handy printable discounts including Pizza Express vouchers, Toby Carvery Vouchers, Zizzi Vouchers, and many more.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Urbanspoon


Ollie said...

Nice piece but I couldn't disagree more with you about bread and cheese. Cheese is brilliant with bread. Crackers are horrible mean little tiles of dessicated Englishness.

Unknown said...

Following up on Ollie's point, my French brother-in-law thinks the English are absolutely mental with their crackers and cheese thing. My experience of eating in people's homes in rural France has been that bread is pervasive throughout the meal, and therefore it's completely normal to have bread with cheese. I might question, however, how well toasted bread, and sourdough at that, would work with cheese.

Gavin said...

Toby Carvery Vouchers?

Did enjoy my meal at Loubet's but as you say the service was a bit off. Tables being close together didn't help.

Wish I could find the account of a meal that Simon M had at Hard Rock Rainforest Fashion Cafe with some Majumdlettes. That's how you deal with over-familiar service.

Ollie's right, bread + cheese = good.

An American in London said...

I was at Bruno Loubet in late April and really enjoyed my food there, but I'm with you about that off-the-walls maitre d'. I thought maybe he was just a temporary stand-in because the restaurant had only recently opened, but it seems, from your post, that he's still around. Too bad as I'm headed to Bruno Loubet again in a few days.

An aside -- your suggestion that this "matey" zaniness exhibited by the maitre d' is American style service isn't fair to what makes customer service in many parts of the US better, overall, then that in London. (Or if that's not your suggestion, I'm not sure of the relevance of your opening paragraph).

Chris Pople said...

Ollie/Tom: Each to their own of course, but I just don't like spreading nice cheese on bread. Seems a bit of a waste. Take your points though.

Gavin: Yeah fair enough :) Was approached by this company who paid for the meal in return for a link after the post, thought I'd give it a go.

AAIL: Perhaps I should have been clearer - you're right. The excessive matiness is an occasional side-effect of US service as people vie for attention & tips. That's indeed not what makes it better, which is why towards the end of the post I try and make the distinction between US STYLE service and US LEVELS of service. I think we can all agree the latter is very much welcome in London.

Sharmila said...

Crackers all the way. It does my head in when you get bread with cheese. I don't want bread at the end of the meal - especially if it has fruit in it.

Anyway, glad you liked your meal - I really enjoyed the food when I went.

Hollow Legs said...

That kind of mateyness service leaves me really uncomfortable and just wishing they'd fuck off and leave me alone. Perhaps I'm properly British now (or a grump).

I also prefer crackers with my cheese. After what is often a 3 course meal (with bread to start with) I want to get that cheese in my face without any other distractions to fill my already protruding belly with.

Paunchos said...

Bread please with my cheese. Over in Sweden I'm getting a lot of very crispy crackers which just seem to lacerate my mouth.

And over-matey service makes me squirm.

I think we had the same maitre 'd by the way. And on our visit he was friendly, but not OTT. He did take it upon himself to tell us that our waiter was nicknamed "The Chicken" which was all rather amusing. But I can imagine it spilling over into "annoying" very quickly.

Very much agree about the snail dish though. Loved it.

Mr Noodles said...

Antipodean staff can be guilty of overfamiliarity in London. Without wishing to piss off my good friends from down under, some of their waiters and waitresses are bloody irritating. Everything is "awesome" despite them not knowing what the hell it is they are serving up.

Leah said...

I agree with you that I don't want a server to be my best friend, and I don't want them to entertain me.
However, in the 8 years that I waited tables in fine dining, I got a lot of complaints for not engaging in such behavior. People read my professionalism as coldness, and the people who couldn't entertain themselver were disappointed when I failed to do so.
Eventually it just became easier to be perky and overbearing. So maybe you can blame the American public.
This is one of the reasons that I'm thankful, every day, that I no longer have to wait tables.

Unknown said...

I have to say I am quite a fan of American service at least they work for their tips rather than the standard 12.5 per cent in London regardless of atrocious service. Good to hear that you enjoyed your food as I am booked in here next week and based on your review I will be hoping the snails are on the menu - they look great.

Martin said...

This has been one of my hobby-horses since returning from the states - I'm not actually convinced Americans are as good at service as their reputation would suggest, or, rather, I think American "service" is simply a polished veneer of faux-friendliness and, should anything go wrong, the idea of "service" quickly goes out the window.

I actually think that, as service goes, the best British service beats the best American service hands-down.

Kudos to Bruno on the pigeon, one of my stand-out favourites, which is, as you said, all too rarely seen.

Gregory said...

The greatest waiter or waitress should make everything happen without being noticed. To borrow a quote from a film "know what the guest's want before they know themselves !"

Unfortunately many of London waitstaff are not subtle and cannot read the table or someone's body language. For instance, when a meal is delivered, always look back at the table (and it's guests)to see if the guests are visably enjoying the meal. If not, then the waitstaff should put themselves in position be asked to correct this situation. i.e stand in view of table, pour wine or water or even just tend to a neighbouring table. But don't interupt my conversation or meal.

Unfortunately the US model has it's pitfalls as does the UK. Yet I am sure most agree, that the service charge and tipping needs to be based soley on performance therefore ensuring your gratuity is never taken for granted.

Chris ......And for what it is worth, i believe one should always have the options of bread, crackers and oat cakes (for the anti gluten).

Eva Lai said...

The hypnotist and David Copperfield reference is hilarious...!

Helen said...

Agreed. That dude was irritating as hell with his 'comedy' routine. Nice grub though, company wasn't bad...

Krista said...

Was just there last night. I walked in and the maitre'd just sort of stared at me and I had to prompt him. No welcome. Very odd. But then he became chatty but it was all slightly awkward. And wait til you hear what AAiL has to say about the whole "We need the table back in 2 hours" thing.