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.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Two Floors, Soho

One of the questions people often ask me is why I insist on focussing on City bars. After all, as these folks are quick to remind me, there are many great bars all over London which clearly I either haven’t been too, or simply haven’t heard of.

Well, New Year and new start then. And given I spend just as much of my social life in Soho and Shoreditch (not to mention those great suburbs south of the river), I thought I’d start in with the West End institution that is Two Floors.

Located just off the recently and quite wonderfully revamped Carnaby Street, Two Floors does what it says on the box by being set over two floors – ground and basement level. The ground level bar is all Soho cool. Dark green walls are offset by the darker brown lounge-style furniture and tactfully placed mirrors. The bar staff have stepped straight out of Wallpaper Magazine, or graphic design school anyway. They are matched in styling by the equally hip clientele, which serves as a reminder to those who care to forget that Soho, rather then Shoreditch, was the original home of London chic.

The basement bar has been branded as Handy Joe’s Tiki Bar. But don’t expect any jangling ukuleles or Mahiki Bar ‘irony’. This is a bar that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and besides a smattering of bamboo and palm trees - and one of the smallest actual serving bar spaces in London - the basement is all urban intimacy. Which is a euphemism for saying it is crowded, a testimony to both the layout of the place and its popularity amongst Soho’s hipsters.

However, Two Floors' saving grace is the shared courtyard area on the Kingly Court side, which gives it that year-round extra space that punters need, so long as you don’t mind occasionally having to step around confused tourists looking for M&S. it also helps that the staff complement their good looks with good service, meaning that punters don’t have to wait long at all to get their rounds in.

The drinks themselves are all reasonably priced and are your fairly standard Soho fare, with a range of New World and lower priced European wines, and beers that include Red Stripe and Camden Hells on tap with Kirin, Estrella Dam, Samuel Adams and Negra Modelo by the bottle. If you’re after an alcohol-infused injection of energy, the Dark and Stormy (rum and lime) cocktails are particularly good.

If you’re looking for a good start, or even end to a night out in Soho, Two Floors is as good a place to go as any.

Big W

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Nightjar, Shoreditch

There's a certain glamour attached to the Prohibition era - the Charleston, gangsters, illegal speakeasies. In credit-crunched Britain, one could argue the time is rife for our own bit of '30s-style indulgence, and this is a challenge which Nightjar has taken up with aplomb.

The Nightjar is a speakeasy-style cocktail bar that, from its drinks menu and interior to the music, attempts to recreate the mood of that era. The speakeasy feel starts with the entrance, which is located just north of the labyrinth that is Old Street Tube station. Tucked away amongst the caff’s (café’s would be misleading) is a non-descript door on the edge of the roundabout. The only clue that it is a cocktail bar on the night I arrived came from a couple of shady looking bouncers loitering outside. At least I think they were bouncers.

Once you find the entrance, a small flight of stairs takes you into a venue that’s straight out of downtown Manhattan. The drinking den consists of dark wood furniture and black leather chairs and booths, and is framed by a copper-panelled ceiling and large mirrored murals. Subdued lighting, dapper bartenders, and a gorgeous waiting staff continue the illusion of serious glamour.

But the Nightjar is more than just illusion with a cracking resident band, Benoit Villefon and his Orchestra, which offered up a mix of Chanson Francoise, Russian folk, Latin dance, and swing. These cats (as they like to be called) were all seriously charismatic and musically very funky. The audience was a mix of hipsters and creative types who clearly enjoyed the retro aspect of the night. In fact, one group of young women went whole hog and donned flapper dresses for the evening, which despite how it might sound, came across as stylish as opposed to hen party.

The cocktails are simply heavenly. They are classified into Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and Post War-era drinks, from which one can only assume that they didn’t invent cocktails during the war. Or that they weren’t any good. The Northerner and I were joined by the Editor for the evening, and we indulged across the eras. Pre-Prohibition Morning Glory Fizz (Scotch, lemon, lime, absinthe, sugar syrup and champagne) and Prohibition Between the Sheets (cognac, rum, triple sec, lemon and gomme syrup) were particular favourites of mine. Big drinks but perfectly balanced. The gals opted for Post War The Wibble (gin, sloe gin, muroise, gomme syrup, grapefruit and lemon) and Airmail (rum, honey water, lime and champagne) which they declared delicious. We also sampled one of their signature drinks – the 24 Volt Cobbler (cranberries, maple syrup, lime, bitters, mixed berries liqueur and red wine) which was unusual but very tasty; and the English Mule (gin, lime, vermouth, ginger liqueur, and gomme syrup) which was rich and delicious. Other drinks on offer include a full selection of reasonably priced Old and New World wines and two of my favourite bottled beers – Greenwich Meantime London Lager and Blue Moon Wheat Beer.

Nightjar is the brainchild of Roisin and Edmund, who from a bar perspective, have a great sense of style and celebration. Of courses when you’re visiting anywhere as a reviewer you are subject to a little bit of extra attention, but I think its fair to say that these two are charming regardless of who you are. While their retrospective nod to a bygone era works so well you half expect them to roll out barrels of moonshine. But perhaps that’s one for next time. Or the time after that...