Bistro du Vin

38-42 St John Street, Clerkenwell, London, England, EC1M 4AY, United Kingdom

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Editor's note: in May 2012 this restaurant was sold, and will become a branch of
Burger and Lobster.

Bistro du Vin is the first in what will be a chain of bistros, themselves spin-off from the Hotel du Vin hotel chain. This one occupies the premises that were previously the late lamented Eastside, and the layout is unchanged, with an open kitchen and the room in two sections. The walls have more prints hanging, but Eastside customers would otherwise reciognise the place. The menu was very appealing, with lots of bistro classics. Starters were £5.75 to £9.50, main courses £15.95 to £30, vegetables extra at £3.50, desserts £6.95. The menu highlights the Josper Grill, the latest in London kitchen fashion, a closed oven that imparts a smoky char to meat.

The wine list is printed on both sides of a large menu, and was organised by style. The list started at £18.50 and includes choices such as Domaine Ramonet Aligot 2008 at £38 for a wine that costs £14 in the shops, the excellent Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 2005 at £78 for a wine that retails at £28, and Planeta Cecilia 2007 at £60 for a wine that costs £18 in the high street. A prestige section of the list that includes Chateau Palmer 1996 at £175 for a wine that will set you back £132 in the shops, and Grange 2001 at £300 compared to a retail price of around £200 if you can find it.  Bargain of the list is Dom Perignon 2002 at £99, which costs £88 in the shops.

Another intriguing wine feature is the wine dispenser along one wall, offering single glasses of serious wine; you do pay a premium for this, which is only fair given that there will be some wastage, as these units keep wine successfully for perhaps three days. The Chateau Palmer 1996 was priced by the glass at £55 (note that six glasses would be £330, compared to the bottle list price of £175). Despite the premium, it is very interesting to be able to try a glass of really top wine, which is a rare opportunity. Bread is from the Bread Factory, a good supplier (comfortably 14/20).

Crab on toast was a disc of white crab meat topped by heavily seasoned brown crab meat; I am fond of bold seasoning, but for me the pepper here was way too strong, killing off any trace of the delicate white crab meat; the toast was served on the side and was distinctly charred. Maybe 11/20 here. Smoked salmon was well sourced from Formans, but was served with oddly limp pumpernickel.

My main course was better, fillet steak (from a Highland breed called Belted Galloway) cooked to order in the Josper Grill, and having good flavour with that hint of charcoal from the grill. However the peppercorn sauce with it was utterly tasteless and thin (14/20 given the nice steak). On the side, matchstick fries were a sad, limp affair, under-seasoned but the main problem being the poor texture. It is not often I leave a serving of chips, but I left these. My wife’s goat cheese salad was inoffensive, though we were not expecting the cheese to appear on toast (11/20). Desserts lifted the meal a little. My lemon tart had mediocre pastry but good, well balanced filling with a proper lemon kick (14/20). Iced raspberry soufflé had acceptable texture though not enough raspberry flavour, though it was decent enough (12/20).

The service was, frankly, a shambles.  We were dining quite late, and at the beginning the service felt like as if the staff were on trying to get things over with as fast as possible (which of course was probably the case): three separate people asked me what wine I wanted to order when I was still trying to read the list, all within moments of one another.  When the food arrived it came at each course with a “who ordered what?” question and a baffled look, which is unacceptable at a restaurant trying to operate beyond fast food level.  Then when it became time for dessert and we tried to order we waited, and waited some more; where were all those waiting staff queuing up to take my wine order now?  Eventually I resorted to waving in the direction of the kitchen, where a waitress was chatting to one of the chefs, and after nearly a minute someone noticed.  I do not have very high expectations of service outside the Michelin level, but this evening was remarkably amateurish. The sole saving grace of the service was the assistant sommelier (Sergio), who was polite, attentive and engaged with his customers; if only the same could be said for the rest of the waiting staff.  Sergio was an oasis of competence in a service desert.

The bill came to £70 a head. Overall this was a mixed experience: they are sourcing things quite well e.g. the bread and smoked salmon, and yet making fairly basic technical errors in some dishes while others were fine. The shambolic service did not help despite the attractions of the wine list, and at this price level I would expect better.

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