Monday, 11 June 2012

Bistro Union, Clapham

"Let me explain the concept at Tex Mex Tapas", the evening will invariably begin. "On this side of the menu are a bewildering number of completely unrelated items that look good value at first until you realise that each is the size of a postage stamp and you'll need about ninety to gather enough food together to form a decent meal. They'll arrive as and when we, the restaurant, decide to send them to you, not in whichever order makes the most culinary sense, and most will be straight out of the fridge as our tiny kitchen could never cope with cooking them all to order. On the other side of the menu are dishes that fall into the more usual starters and mains portions, except you'll have no idea what to order because you won't know how hungry you'll be after filling up on "tapas". Right, still or sparkling?"

No no no no no. Stop that nonsense right now. Tapas is Spanish, and only Spanish, bar food. If you want to come up with some wacky eye-catching concept for your latest restaurant venture then knock yourselves out - you're certainly in the right place in a city that already boasts a dessert restaurant specialising entirely in mango and will soon have somewhere you can go and eat hot dogs paired with champagne - but please, for the love of God, leave tapas alone. Tapas means cold Manzanilla, sliced Iberico ham and saucers of hot croquettas, it does not just mean 'small plates of whichever food you like', and it is certainly not anything so mundane as a 'selection of starters'. José in Bermondsey, Brindisa at Borough Market, Pepito in Kings Cross, these are tapas bars. Tapasia (I can't even type the name without cringing), a place on Old Compton street serving tuna sashimi with foie gras, and lamb cutlets with kimchi, is, clearly, not.

So when we sat down at Bistro Union in Clapham's smart Abbeville Road on Friday, my heart sunk when the words "let me explain our concept to you" and "this side of the menu is sort of English tapas" were uttered by our waitress. Issues with the misappropriation of the word "tapas" aside, I just think if you have to "explain a concept" you have something to hide when it comes to the food, but perhaps that's unfair - I suppose anywhere has a right to try something different. We ordered about 6 or 7 from the "English tapas" menu to share between the 3 of us and a main each, and hoped the self-consciously English menu tasted better than it looked.

In the main, it did. Some of the bar snack things were very nice indeed, such as the 'sausage and sage puffs' which were sort of a savoury wrapped pastry thing containing sausage meat, and anchovy toast which involved Bistro Union's own approximation of Gentleman's Relish anchovy spread. A fish finger sandwich was nice, too, with good texture contrasts and nice light mayonnaise, and the house bread was an interesting sourdough thing involving chunks of apple; not anywhere near as weird as it sounds.

But I'm afraid there were also problems too big to ignore. "Peas in a pod" (£2) was literally just that, a bowl of plain garden peas untreated in any way, fine if you like plain peas but I just wish they'd done something to them to justify me being in a restaurant. New season garlic was another victim of excessive simplification, just a halved roasted garlic served next to a small blob of tasteless goat's curd, neither ingredient shining. And "whelks and pickled shallots" were actively horrible, the seafood having the texture of rubber and no flavour at all, and the pickled shallots doing nothing to ease their passage through the gullet. The whelks were so distressing, in fact, I put out a panicky tweet asking if they really were supposed to taste like that; the general consensus came back that basically, yes, they are. I'm sure I've had them before though, without suffering quite so much of a negative psychological and physiological reaction.

Mains were, on the whole, better. A toad-in-the-hole was, needless to say, nowhere near as good as the Yorkshire pudding my grandma used to make but then we've been over that territory before - it was at least generously proportioned and containing very good Cumberland sausage. A lemon sole was slightly overcooked and swimming in butter but it was a nice fresh bit of fish and accompanying horseradish celeriac was lovely. Best of the bunch was my quail which was crunchy and soft in all the right places and served with a top quality Caesar-salad-a-like using Berkswell goat's cheese instead of parmesan - clever stuff.

Despite the odd horror, then, we actually just about still found enough to enjoy and with a final bill of £31 a head with a glass or two of wine each and a single slice of (unremarkable but not unpleasant) raspberry tart to share, you certainly get a lot for your money. But there was just something about the overall idea of Bistro Union that didn't quite work - from the try-hard ever-so-English menu that seemed to constrain and annoy instead of provide focus, to the oversimplified dishes that were probably aiming for unpretentious but ended up looking spartan and unfinished. There was also the added irritation of a cover charge which 'covered' sparkling water we didn't want and bread we didn't ask for, which automatically loses points around these parts. There's a possibility Bistro Union could evolve into a good neighbourhood restaurant once they abandon the "concept" of "English tapas", loosen up a bit and lose the whelks. Until then, my advice I'm afraid is to stay away.


Bistro Union on Urbanspoon


Heather @ The SW Food Blog said...

I had whelks at Le Bouchon on Battersea Rise as part of their seafood platter. Err...seriously, why do people eat them? Texture is just revolting. Urgh, makes me nauseous just thinking about them!

Anonymous said...

What a shame - sounds like things have gone downhill a bit. I went soon after opening and it was mostly great. No 'English Tapas' then, just bar snacks.

Puddings were great as well, perhaps they're still experimenting.

My review for the local rag

Cesar Valverde said...

Sorry to hear about the experience. But I'd contend that it has already become a good neighbourhood restaurant, I've been probably 15 or so times, usually just sitting at the bar with a few snacks admittedly. Really friendly staff and good well priced fresh food.

Kavey said...

I do like whelks, the chewy texture, I think, but they desperately need flavour added during the cooking. I order them for dim sum in a sauce that's loosely called satay, though it's more of a curry one. Love them!

Anonymous said...

Whelks are evil. They never seem to be soft, always rubbery, no matter How they are cooked. The fish and quail look nice but that sausage pastry looks like something I would do at home in a heartbeat, but not pay for in a restaurant.

Krista from said...

I enjoyed reading your views on Bistro Union Chris, when I went on Saturday afternoon I just wanted to be in Brawn - a similar concept executed infinitely better.

Gavin said...

Thought you would have learned by now Chris, whelks are a joke that us Lunduners have been playing on our provincial visitors for decades. Some of them even believe that these things can actually be eaten and enjoyed.

Actually I've eaten them in Chinese restaurants but chopped very small and fried. Not bad.

PB said...

I actually think Trinity's slightly overrated as well - had a really good meal there a couple of years ago, but the couple of times I've been recently, the cooking's been nice but not really good, and service has been a bit weak.

Chris Pople said...

PB: Yes I deliberately didn't mention Trinity in case anyone thought I was comparing the two unfairly, but I've never really liked Trinity either. Been twice and never been really satisfied I was getting value for money.

Unknown said...

I used to really like Trinity however the last time I visited, for Sunday lunch, there were just too many issues regarding service that meant I won't be going back. Ridiculously expensive wines offered by the glass, and four of us actively pressured into taking a beef wellington instead of the roast, with no mention of it being a £10 surcharge per person over the Sunday lunch set menu. I was very annoyed.
As for whelks, I've liked them before but only with very garlicky mayonnaise..

Anonymous said...

I can understand you not liking the idea of the Bar Snacks being referred to as english tapas...but i think if you didn't read into it so much it was just a quick explanation of what they are going for and doesn't need two paragraphs to explain it was used in the wrong context. I have eaten here quite often since it has opened and have never been told the whole "english tapas" thing. However I can see if a waitress did come out with that they were only trying to explain its not a starter or a main its just little plates to try before your meal. I have had many conversations with the chef's on the bar and all there food is made before service and is extremely well sourced and fresh. It's a shame that you can't get passed one sentence of it being called "tapas" and that its tainted your whole meal. They try new things all the time, some that work really well some that don't. If you don't like whelks, Then I have no idea why you ordered them in the first place. I have had quite a few good meals here and the service is great. The price is amazing for the quality of food your getting!!! Will be seeing you soon BU!