Few restaurants last more than a handful of years, yet Bibendum just notched up its 21st birthday. It helps that the kitchen was initially in the talented hands of Simon Hopkinson, and I was a regular here in the early days. Matthew Harris now heads the kitchen, but the place still benefits from the beautiful dining room, with its airy first floor space letting in plenty of natural light and the stained glass windows with the Michelin man showing the origin of the building as the Michelin tyre company headquarters dating from 1909. The Michelin theme is taken up in the shape of the flowers vases and even the water glasses.
Lunch is the time to come here to see the room at its best, especially a sunny day if that can be arranged. The menu is £29.50 for three courses, with eight modern British choices for starters and main courses and half a dozen desserts. The wine list is a densely packed 23 pages, with choices such as 2003 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett at £34.50 for a wine that retails at around £13, or Tim Adams Pinot Gris 2007 at £26.50 for a wine that costs about £9 in the high street.
The lunch menu is £29.50 for three courses, which is not overly excessive but these days does not compare well with some Michelin-starred London restaurant lunch bargains. Gravadlax with pickled cucumber and mustard dressing was pleasant, but this is more shopping than cooking, and objectively the smoked salmon was not of particularly high standard (2/10). Other starters sampled, such as asparagus with hollandaise sauce and a poached egg, averaged around the 2/10 level.
My spatchcocked quail was served with a menagerie of ingredients: dandelion, hazelnuts, foie gras and raisins in marsala, and these were as harmonious and coherent as might be imagined. The quail itself looked terrible : “as if it had been run over” was the verdict of one of my fellow-diners, and was burnt around the edges, though the meat was edible (still 0/10 for this basket-case of a dish).
Haddock and chips were disappointing, both simply not being cooked at a high enough temperature, the chips and the fish batter pale and flaccid when they should be golden and crisp, though the fish itself was decent (1/10). This was most odd as the haddock and chips I had just months ago was fine. At least a passion fruit sorbet was very nice (4/10).
This was a significant deterioration from my previous meal, and I have adjusted the score accordingly. The dining room is still beautiful, but this lunch suggested things are not all well in the kitchen.
Below are notes from a happier meal in October 2008.
Bread is either enjoyable baguette or slices of sunflower and honey bread (4/10). I started with mushroom risotto, made with a proper stock and plenty of wild mushrooms, the texture good and with plenty of Parmesan to add flavour (4/10). Haddock and chips is not quite as good as in the Simon Hopkinson days but still has good fish with plenty of flavour and a light batter, with thin but reasonably well made chips and good tartare sauce (4/10).
A grapefruit jelly with champagne syllabub could have been a little firmer and had slightly more grapefruit flavour, but was served with comforting warm Madeleines (3/10). Coffee has plenty of flavour and is served with excellent chocolate truffles. Service was friendly but a little bumbling at times, with topping up mixed and the Madeleine part of my dessert initially forgotten. Overall, though, a very comforting venue for a weekend lunch.
Downstairs is the busy, less formal, oyster bar.