Bibendum become an iconic London restaurant under Simon Hopkinson, the gifted chef hired by Terence Conran in 1987 to run it. Located in the old Michelin corporate building, the dining room is a glorious affair, with stained glass windows and plenty of natural light – at lunch it is arguably the finest dining room in the capital. When Simon Hopkinson left, the restaurant fell away in standard, and although it was still decent enough the magic had gone. Hoping to revive the old place is Claude Bosi, formerly of Hibiscus in Mayfair. The renovated restaurant, now with a partially open kitchen where the bar used to be, opened in early April 2017.
The décor re-emphasises the Michelin connection, with some cabinets of old Michelin France red guides, a Bibendum (Michelin Man) butter dish and salt and pepper set, and with the Bibendum icon even printed on the dessert napkins. Ironically, given its history, the restaurant here has never gained a Michelin star, though this of course may change. There is a midnight blue carpet, which contributes to pleasingly low noise levels, despite music (eg Norah Jones) being played at a modest volume in the background. The room can seat up to 70 diners at any one time.
The menu is very much in the mould of Mr Bosi rather than hankering back to the Hopkinson days. There is a roast meat on a trolley option now, but also a tasting menu, and dishes reflecting Mr Bosi’s modern style of cooking. There was a set lunch available at £36.50, but from the a la carte menu the starters ranged from £18 to £39, main courses £28 to £39 and desserts were £10 - £14.
The lengthy wine list featured labels such as Clements-Terms Les Petit Clement 2015 at £27 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £8, Les Enfants Sauvage Cool Moon 2013 at £65 compared to its retail price of £18, and Ramey Wine Cellars 2012 Chardonnay at £99 for a wine that will set you back £33 in the shops. Posher bottles included Comtes Lafon Charmes Meursault 2007 at £369 compared to its shop price of £215, and Cos d’Estournel 1996 at £425 for a wine whose current market value is £166. Water, which did not appear to be a branded bottle but rather filtered water, came at a pretty much indefensible £5 a bottle.
Our meal began with a pair of “olives” presented under a miniature olive tree. As is the way with chefs these days, these were no mere olives. Instead they were made of cocoa butter and filled with a liquid flavoured with onion, olives and anchovy, the flavours of pissaladiere, the southern France snack that is their equivalent of pizza. This was very pleasant (14/20), though I would be really interested to see what a high-end kitchen like this could do if they actually made a classic pissaladiere – I suspect it would be lovely. Also on the table were cashew nuts dusted in vinegar powder, which were most enjoyable. An amuse-bouche was foie gras ice cream with mango puree and coca nibs served in a little cornet, the combination of flavours working well and the cornet delicate (16/20). A vegetarian alternative, and equally enjoyable, was yuzu and miso ice cream. A final nibble was pea puree, coconut mousse and curry powder served in an eggshell. I was less convinced by this, the pea puree having some whole peas inside and having reasonable flavour, but I not sure whether coconut is a great pairing for peas, even with the gentle hint of curry powder (14/20). Bread was from Hedone, a wise choice since they make the best sourdough in London.
Scallops from Scotland came with strawberry sauce vierge. The shellfish were presented nicely enough and sliced, lightly cooked and having some inherent sweetness. However strawberry is a big flavour to pair with the delicate scallops, and though there is some logic in pairing the fruit acidity against the natural sweetness of the scallops, this was an uneven contest between the flavours, with the strawberry delivering a knock-out (14/20).
Better was veal sweetbread with dots of white and black garlic puree and a pool of gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, parsley and anchovy). The sweetbread had good texture and the freshness of the gremolata was a good foil for the offal, though if anything its punchy flavour slightly dominated the delicate sweetbread (15/20).
Dover sole was prettily presented with an accompaniment of spring onion, cauliflower and broccoli with gentle curry flavour. The vegetables were very good but the fish itself was rather disappointing, having a somewhat flabby texture. This may have been a function of the cooking or may have been that the fish was not rested for long enough. Some large fish, like turbot and Dover sole, are better when kept for a time before being cooked; even some sushi is better when aged, so although some fish such as mackerel is best served spanking fresh, this is not universally the case. The result was a decent dish that could have been much better (at best 13/20). On the side were excellent pomme soufflés, crisp and light (16/20).
Chicken ayam sioh is a dish from Malacca that in its original form involves serving chicken with a sauce made from tamarind paste, garlic, soy and coriander. The chicken, from France, was well cooked, teetering on the edge of slightly overcooked but not falling over. This had reasonable flavour, though there are better birds to be had in France than this (such as the Landes chicken served at Pres de Eugenie). Taramind puree was fine but a smoked cauliflower puree on the side was over-smoked, so much I struggled to identify what it was. This again was a pleasant enough dish but I felt that it had the potential to be better (14/20).
The dessert menu was challenging in places: “asparagus, white chocolate, black olive, coconut” was one example of how the savoury part of modern menus has launched a takeover bid for the dessert menu in all too many restaurants. Fortunately it was possible to navigate around such culinary landmines. Chocolate millefeuille was very nice, especially when paired with a classic vanilla ice cream rather than the basil ice cream advertised (15/20). Best of all was pistachio soufflé with banana ice cream. This soufflé was carefully made, evenly cooked and light in texture, with a top that had an impression of the Michelin Man imprinted on it in cocoa butter. This was a clever touch, and in no way was at the expense of the flavour of the dish itself. Indeed this was a classy soufflé, with plenty of pistachio flavour (18/20).
Nespresso coffee was £6 a head, albeit with a very enjoyable chocolate that resembled an Aero in texture but was considerably better than one of those. The bill, once a spurious item had been removed, came to £99 a head, with just water to drink. Service was excellent, led by a charming manager who had once worked at the Ledbury, at Bibendum in the old days, and before that at the legendary Hotel de Ville when Fredy Girardet was cooking. If you had wine then you would be hard pressed to get through three courses and coffee for less than about £120 a head all in unless you had the cheap lunch menu.
Overall, it is certainly good to see Bibendum back in ambitious culinary hands. For me Claude Bosi would be better off dialling down the culinary wizardry, but that is clearly his style. The dishes at this meal varied quite a bit, with for example the superb soufflé offset by the rather dubious Dover sole dish. A general comment is that seasoning was quite bold, which is fine for me but will not be to everyone’s taste. The restaurant had only been four weeks in operation, and doubtless some of the kinks will be ironed out in due course, but the quite stiff price point implies a high level of consistency and precision, which was only partially the case at my meal today.