After my initial disappointing meal soon after opening it seemed only fair to give bistro Bruno Loubet another chance once the kitchen had settled down. Salt cod with potato crisps and piquillo pepper and almond sauce was attractively presented and was quite good, the dots of sauce having good intensity of flavour, even if the salt cod was very salty (2/10). I preferred this to a deep-fried duck egg presented with a salad of potatoes and pickled gorilles. The egg was fine, but the pickled the girolles were too astringent, the sourness dominating the dish (1/10). As an aside, what would have been a nice presentation was spoilt by the waiter managing to nudge the egg, which was intended to be the centrepiece of the dish, on to the side of the plate. Although a minor thing, it did raise a couple of issues. Firstly, the kitchen would surely have been better to use something to fix the egg in position on the plate so it did not so easily fall over, and surely the waiter should have briefly removed the plate and re-presented it, given that this is a restaurant rather than a canteen.
My wood pigeon was better, cooked accurately and served with cassava chips, stir-fried Brussels sprouts and green peppercorn sauce. The sprouts were properly cooked, though the cassava chips were a little tasteless and I would have welcomed more of the sauce (3/10). The best dish was the sea bream, pan-fried with a Provencal-style garnish. The fish was accurately cooked and the vegetables went well with the fish (easily 4/10). Green vegetables on the side (an extra £3.80) were nicely cooked, as was some mash (4/10).
For dessert, a pear and ginger financier was moist but the ginger flavour was missing in action, though the goat milk ice cream on the side was fine (2/10). A slice of bitter chocolate cake was enjoyably rich, and the coffee sabayon tasted of coffee (comfortably 4/10). Service was well-meaning but rather casual. I really don’t mind topping up my own wine in a restaurant if they leave it within reach, as it would be in a casual setting like a pub. Here the wine was taken off the table but as it happened was just about within arm’s length. Since topping up was distinctly sporadic this came in handy, and this aspect of service seemed to me sloppy given that at the off-peak time we dined there were as many waiting staff as customers, so they were not exactly stretched.
We drank Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 2008, which was a relative bargain on the list at £54 for a wine that retails at £25. The bill came to £77 a head for three courses and coffee. Overall, this meal was a big improvement over my previous one, but although food presentation was nice I struggle with the value for money factor here. The food cost for three courses was perilously close to that of restaurants of a clearly higher level (say, my local La Trompette), and the service was pretty casual for a place at this price point.
Below are notes from my initial, much less successful meal here in February 2010.
Over the years I have Bruno Loubet’s food many times. After training as a chef in France, including in the navy, he moved to London in the 1980s (where he started in 1982 at Gastronome One before moving to Petit Blanc in 1986 (after a stint under Raymond Blanc at le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons). My first experience of his food was at The Four Seasons in 1989, where he earned a Michelin star at the age of 29. I also enjoyed his food at Bistro Bruno in Soho, which he opened in 1992, and at his later venture l’Odeon in Regent Street. In 2002 he moved to Brisbane, where he was head chef of three separate restaurants, before returning to London to open here in February 2010.
The dining room here is in the Zetter hotel in Clerkenwell, and has a pleasant space with an attractive bar, open kitchen and slightly cramped tables, with chairs that are not designed for you to linger. The menu is firmly in bistro territory, with starters £6.50 - £8, main courses at £14 - £18, vegetables at £3.50 or £4 and deserts at £5 - £6.50. The wine list is decent though has little to set the pulse racing. Willunga Shiraz/Viognier 2006 was £23 for a wine you can buy for around £7 in the shops, Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was £46 compared to a retail price of about £15, while at the upper end of the list, Brunello Constanti 2004 was £80 for a wine that will set you back around £40 or so to buy. Krug non-vintage champagne was a relative bargain at £150 given that you can pay as much as £120 retail for this these days (though it can be bought in the trade for around £75).
Bread is made from scratch, which in principle is excellent but this version badly lacked salt, and the texture was disappointing. For reasons that elude me the bread was served in a flower pot; I suppose some marketing person thinks this is clever: flour/flower?!? Truly, it is not, but I care less about the silly way to serve it than the fact that the bread was poor; I really like places to make their own bread, but if you cannot make good bread, then it is better to buy some (2/10).
I began with pressed seared tuna, served prettily enough in a lattice of lardo di Colonatta and green apple puree. This was a pleasant dish, the tuna having good colour, the green apple puree a sensible idea but oddly lacking in acidity, though I am unconvinced about the merits of pairing of the tuna with the lardo (3/10). Potted shrimps and mackerel with a cucumber salad with Melba toast were a mushy paste with greasy Melba toast and cucumber that was not properly pickled (1/10). Mauricette snails and meatballs with mushrooms were not well received by my knowledgeable dining companion.
For main course, hare royale was served with onion ravioli, pumpkin and dried mandarin puree. I ate this exact dish barely a week before at the Greenhouse, and sadly there was no comparison. The hare here was dried out, the ravioli slightly soggy, and the dish had no hint of the delightful richness that it should have (barely 1/10). Beef daube Provencale at least had beef that, while a cheap cut, was tender, but seemed to entirely lack seasoning. It was served in a pot with tomatoes and root vegetables, and presented with a plate of mousseline potatoes that were unfortunately cold by the time they arrived at the table (perhaps 2/10). Vegetable and goat cheese pithivier had perfectly competent pastry, but the vegetables (primarily artichoke and courgette) were just a tasteless mush that desperately needed seasoning (1/10 only because of the pastry). A side dish of gratin dauphinoise had soggy potatoes and lacked both cheese taste and, again, seasoning.
For dessert, Valrhona chocolate tartlet was the best of the ones tried, with an ordinary caramel and salted butter ice cream (2/10). Apple and quince millefeuille with chilled orange blossom sabayon was simply tasteless, with disappointing (barely 1/10). Service was pleasant if pushy, with repeated nudges towards ordering extra vegetables and drinks, though attention wandered once the order was placed. A dropped fork was ignored, and wine topping up patchy. The bill came to £74 a head with modest wine and no pre-dinner drinks.
Overall I was very disappointed by this meal, partly because I know from the past that the chef (who was present) is capable of much better than this. The basic bistro formula is fine, but then you need to actually execute well given the cheap ingredients, and there were technical issues at each course. Prices are set at a level that suggests a much higher level of cooking than appeared this evening. The uneven cooking seemed not to bother the trendy diners that filled the dining room one iota, and doubtless it will make money for its owners. I had just hoped for so much better.