Monday, 28 February 2011

Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Clerkenwell

The culture of the celebrity chefs is a recent, but now constant, feature of UK life. Those at the very top of the foodie chain enjoy considerable fame and fortune; perhaps not in the same league as actors and rock stars, but certainly on par with top footballers.

However, the subtle but important difference is that when you go to see Chelsea or Manchester United play, the likes of Drogba and Lampard, or Rooney and Giggs will be on the pitch. The same is not true of a celebrity restaurant, the owner of which seems to spend more time in front of the camera then in the kitchen.

The much revered (by critics anyway) Bruno Loubet is cut from a different cloth. Loubet is a chef’s chef whose return to London last year from a 10-year stint down under was greeted by some of the more renowned restaurant reviewers with a frenzy akin to that which heralded David Beckham’s move to Real Madrid. And when Loubet opened a brasserie in the eternally on-trend Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell, the sense of anticipation was almost palpable.

One year on and with the hype now settled, the Northerner and I were joined by two of our favourite dining companions - the Economist and the Buyer – as we headed over to St John's Square to see whether the noise was justified. For a start, Bistro Bruno Loubet looks the part. Upon entering the Zetter you are transported to a Parisian-style brasserie. And not in the Café Rouge sense. Situated on the corner where the square meets the street, the place benefits from high arched windows, dark brown wooden floors, and bistro chairs and tables that lifts it from being a mere hotel restaurant into something far more inviting. Its good looks are complemented by the great service of its mostly male waiting and bar staff, who are as charming, efficient, and as appropriately attentive as they are attractive. The punters are your mix of the more erudite City dwellers (read: fund managers) and local professionals, with the odd hipster thrown in. The atmosphere is slightly subdued, but in a warm and relaxed way that is welcoming rather then stuffy.

But what about the food?

We began with pre-dinner nibbles of olives and Parmesan shortbread – the latter being sharp, perfectly crumbly, and incredibly moreish. For starters we opted for game terrine, Wood Pigeon and foie gras pot au feu salad, and Guineafowl boudin blanc with pumpkin barley. The boudin blanc was mousse-like in texture and full of subtle game bird flavours that were balanced nicely by the barley. The snippets I stole from our companions’ terrine and foie gras proved that they were both as rich and fully textured as you would want.

For mains, the Economist opted for the saddle of hare, cooked pink and almost venison-like in its depth of flavour. The gals both went for the baked cod fillets with tomatoes and fennel – the latter being a favourite ingredient of the Northerner. Again, they were cooked to perfection, moist, well-seasoned and melt-in-your mouth flavoursome. I opted for the piglet confit with a cauliflower and prune gratin and braised lentils. The gratin was a triumph for unusual flavour combinations, while the lentils were very good. The only disappointment was the pork itself, which surprisingly was a tad dry.

We couldn’t resist desserts, and between us knocked through the white chocolate and passion fruit mousse with strawberry sauce; the sharpness of the fruits offsetting the sweetness of the chocolate. Our companions both went for the Valrhona chocolate marquise with caramel and salted butter ice cream, which was very nice indeed. The Northerner chose the thin apple tart with crème freche and cinnamon ice cream that was clearly delicious, as none of us were offered so much as a smidgen of a taste.

We washed dinner down with two bottles of Vacqueyras Freres 2003, which were chosen by the Economist as he knows a thing or two about wine. This choice proved no exception, being well-balanced and not too big for any of the dishes.

And to top off the experience, throughout the evening we saw Loubet himself working away at the pass in the kitchen, with not a Gordon Ramsay tantrum or Jamie Oliver mockneyism in sight. Which proves that the old ways can still work.

Bistro Bruno Loubet is a wonderful restaurant, romantic, casual and fun in equal parts, and succeeds in lifting the aspirations of the hotel that houses it. It's not cheap – our bill was a little north of £300 for four people – but it is very good. Plus you have the added bonus of seeing a famous chef that still works the kitchen. Go quick, as I understand they’re a dying breed.

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