In a review in the Observer earlier this year, Jay Rayner said of Bistrot Bruno Loubet: “It’s what restaurants are meant to be like.”
It had been recommended to me, not by food critics, but by friends who had been there, not long after it opened last spring. ‘Not cheap’, they said, but excellent food and service.
I made a note and then forgot about it. But about a month ago, I was contemplating the question of what to do on my birthday and, within a day or so, a piece in the Independent revealed that Raymond Blanc rated the place rather highly too.
For some time, I’ve been wanting to go to a chef-led restaurant in the UK – but it had dawned that, if you’re really interested in a chef’s food, then there’s not actually a lot of point going to, say, one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants, as the chances are that Gordon won’t be there, let alone actually cooking.
So Bistrot Bruno Loubet filled ticked the box perfectly. I booked.
A little research followed. Apparently Monsieur Loubet was a star of London’s gastronomic scene some years ago, having won a Michelin star when very young. But then he upped sticks and headed for Australia.
I had not heard of him – but this means little, since I was barely an infant in terms of culinary pleasure when he tired of the Metropolis and took off Down Under. But what was clear was that his return was a cause for celebration – as Giles Coren, ever the master of understatement, put it in the Times, it “is the most exciting comeback since Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus just hours after the Crucifixion and said, 'It ain’t over till it’s over'.”
It had a lot to live up to.
We arrived in good time and were given a choice of tables – picking a larger one, we found ourselves sitting right next to the kitchen, which is open to the dining area. And yes, that was the man himself at the helm.
First impressions: it’s informal; quite full but not cramped, with touches of rustic wood furniture that help drag it back from feelings of sterile modern glossiness. An awkward space has been designed really well, avoiding any sense of regimentation. The light is good and the background music is just enough to take the edge off the quietness. The staff are young, relaxed, helpful and friendly. You could quite easily begin to feel that you were in Paris rather than London.
So to the food. It’s a short menu – always a good sign – and after spending some minutes hovering over the idea of trying to balance my choices by choosing a lighter starter if I was going to have a meaty main, I gave into the meatiness of the menu and my own inclinations on the night.
So to start, I had a pig’s brawn and leek terrine, with celeriac remoulade. And jolly good it was too. A delightful terrine: flaky, naturally sweet and soothingly tasty, with a lovely aspic.
And the remoulade, with grain mustard in the dressing, gave a wonderfully sharp quality to the dish. I once tried to make a celeriac remoulade, but failed rather dismally. It doesn't help when you have nothing against which to measure a dish that you're trying to make for the first time. Now I have more than an idea.
The research had revealed Loubet’s signature dishes – The Other Half had enjoyed a mousse-like white grouse boudin with cassoulet-style beans for his starter – and I opted for one of these in the hare royale, which came with a macaroni and spinach gratin.
An extraordinary dish: a disc of meat – including a piece of liver – on a bed of puréed pumpkin and dried orange, surrounded by a dark, dark sauce (another recurring Loubet theme) and topped with a slice of roast hare and (I think) some marrow.
Unbelievable. The meat simply flaked away and just melted in the mouth. The sauce, which looked as though it might have been overwhelming, was superb. The first mouthful produced one of those moments when your eyes close as the taste hits your senses.
At this stage, The Other Half was busy revising his view of the duck confit from: “This is one of the best duck confits I’ve had” to “this is the best duck confit I’ve had”.
In between concentrating on the food, I kept trying to surreptitiously glance at the kitchen, where the culinary star was looking as cool as a cucumber as tables filled up. There was no shouting, beyond the occasional "service!" as he alerted the busy staff to the readiness of another dish.
Feeling pretty much stuffed by the end of the hare, I considered a simple dessert of just sorbet and ice cream. But then again, this was my birthday and, if you can't go the whole hog on your birthday, then when can you?
Following the judicious application of such logic, I opted for the chocolate marquise, with caramel and salted butter ice cream and a ‘biscuit’ curl that was as thin as paper. You probably don’t need much of an attempt at description to realise that this was pretty darned stunning.
Everything was washed down with a demi of Vignes de l’Église 2009 from the Languedoc: light and fruity, not long, but a very pleasing wine.
And my pleasure was complete, in a girlie star-struck sort of way, when Bruno Loubet himself bade me “au revoir” as we left.
We decided to perambulate for a few minutes – in reality, it was more of a stuffed waddling – but that was one stunning meal and, on the basis of London restaurant prices, it was very good value too. And yes – it's very much what you dream restaurants will be.