This prime Sloane Square site used to be home to the distinctly ordinary Oriel (which was owned by Tragus, who run the Café Rouge chain). The background to its new incarnation of Colbert is a moment of sheer English aristocratic eccentricity. Earl Cadogan, who owns the freehold of the site (along with 60 acres of Knightsbridge and Chelsea) had a disappointing meal there in 2010. Whereas most of us might just mutter something under our breath or possibly complain to the waiter, he decided that it was not worthy of his business so did not renew its lease, which was shortly coming up. The site then became subject to a bidding war, finally won by Corbin & King, who run The Wolseley, Zedel and Delaunay.
Colbert is presumably named after Claudette Colbert, the Oscar-winning French movie actress who was very successful in the 1930s. I guess it could possibly in honour of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French finance minister under Louis XIV, but unlikely to be named after the US comedian Stephen Colbert. Given that the large dining room is decorated with film posters, my money is on Claudette, the highest paid actress in Hollywood in the late 1930s. The format is familiar bistro territory, open all day. You can have an omelette au jambon at breakfast, a croque monsieur at lunch or a Steak Diane for dinner should you choose. Starters range from £6.75 to £12.75, main courses from £9.95 to £36, with vegetables extra at £3.75 a dish, and desserts at £4.50 to £5.95. The menu has plenty of choices, printed on a large card. The room has black and white tiled floor and red banquettes, with assorted classic film posters and black and white photos of movie stars adorning the walls.
The short (63 bottle) all French wine list ranged in price from £19.75 to £285, with a median price of £50. The mark-up averaged 2.6 times the retail price, which is quite fair for London, let alone Chelsea. Example wines included Bourgogne Chardonnay 2011 Collovray & Terrier at £33 for a wine that you can find in the high street for a tenner, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Mourre de Perdrix’ 2006 Domaine de la Charbonnière at £60 for a wine that retails for £31, and Château Léoville Barton 2001 2ème Cru Saint-Julien at £140 for a wine that will set you back £71 in a shop. The excellent Billecart Salmon Rosé champagne was the bargain of the list at £85 given that it will cost you on average £55 in a shop (£49.50 at the time of writing at Lea and Sandeman in Fulham).
Salad Nicoise used tinned tuna, cheap anchovies and an over-acidic dressing, though the lettuce at least was crisp (11/20). Slightly better was an old-fashioned prawn cocktail, the prawns decent and the cocktail sauce pleasant, though for me it could have had more kick (12/20). Main courses were better. Halibut was nicely cooked, served with properly cooked spinach (13/20). Cassoulet had tender beans and nicely flavoured duck, properly seasoned (14/20). On the side, matchstick fries were reasonably crisp (13/20). Lemon tart had good pastry, though the filling was a little off balance, not quite sharp enough, while its texture was just a touch too firm (13/20).
Service was friendly if rather harried. There were slips: my cutlery didn’t arrive until after the starter, drinks topping up was erratic, and one dessert arrived well before the other. The staff were entirely pleasant, but this was a little disorganised. With a modest wine it would be possible eat a three course meal here for around £65 a head. Colbert is very much in the mould of The Wolseley, though without the lovely dining room of the latter. The menu is appealing and pricing not steep, the food decent enough and quite good in places. With 110 seats in the restaurant (plus a few outside) Colbert was already doing 700 covers a day, just a few weeks after it opened, a remarkable commercial achievement.
At lunch a few weeks later, I started the meal with a salad of endive, Roquefort and haricot vert with a honey and mustard dressing. This was excellent, the endive fresh, their slight bitterness combining well with the saltiness of the Roquefort and the sweetness of the honey and mustard dressing. These are quite bold flavours, and easy to mismatch, but the balance of the dressing here was spot on (easily 14/20). This was better than chicken paillard, which is pounded flat and then sautéed quickly. The tenderised meat had reasonable texture, but little flavour, served with a pleasant salad of fennel, rocket and radish, garnished with tarragon (12/20).
Dessert was a mixed bag. Tarte fine aux pommes was downright poor, the pastry hard and difficult to cut, the apple having sunk into the base and there being nowhere near enough apple flavour, so I mostly tasted hard, overcooked pastry. To be fair, the staff swapped this dessert for another without complaint or charge. The prune tart that replaced it was, by contrast, very good, with nice pastry texture, plenty of prune flavour and a hint of Armagnac (14/20). Coffee is Musetti, and had good flavour. The bill for lunch for three courses but just water to drink was £28 a head. Service was good today for me, though I noticed the two ladies lunching next to me being evicted from their table for lingering past their allotted time: “no time for dessert, we need the table back”. The restaurant was certainly packed out even on this weekday lunch.
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