It's gripping stuff - especially when there are more important things to do. I haven't quite got to the stage of joining the dots to see if they make a convincing caricature of one of the capital's leading chefs, but if my schedule gets any busier, I think I might give it a go.
The most densely clustered area of town by far is the West End south of Oxford Street. Home in on the square quarter mile bordered by Old Compton Street, Wardour Street, Soho Square, and Greek Street, and the little black dots reach a frenzy, as if some one has spilt their Nigroids on the page.
This is the very nub of London's food culture, where rent is high and regular punters really know their onions. To survive here a chef must fill his restaurant night after night, which means not only competing for the custom of those who dine out in Soho more evenings than not, but also bringing in a fair few pilgrims from further afield.
None of which quite explains the decision, a few months back, of one of the highest rated chefs in the super-cluster, to change tack suddenly. Bruno Loubet's Bistrot Bruno merged with his neighbouring Cafe Bruno (which offered simpler, cheaper food from the same kitchen), and after a brief closure for a refit, the new show was announced: a North African/Eastern Med-inspired menu, and the none too original name of Bruno: Soho.
At the time I thought this a shame. When Loubet left the Four Seasons and first came to Frith Street, he clearly felt liberated from the shackles of preparing double Michelin-starred picture plates for fat Americans, and began cooking some of the most exciting food in the capital (his baked potato stuf-fed with lamb's tripe lingers in the memory). And as far as one could tell, business was booming. So if it wasn't broke, why did he have to go and fix it? This nagging question delayed my investigation of what was on offer at Bruno: Soho - until last week.
I went with a couple who were both well versed in the culinary culture of North Africa, partly from direct experience of that region, but mainly through living in Paris, where due to the Algerian influence couscous is pretty much the equivalent of curry in London - you eat a lot of it.
On arrival we ordered assorted mezze to nibble while we studied the menu - may I suggest you do the same? If the question is "how do you gee up the jaded palates of regular West-End restaurant goers?", then the seven terracotta bowls which arrived with a delicious bottle of Kefraya Lebanese Rose contain some very eloquent answers.
My own favourite was little strips of marinated squid and fennel - the squid meltingly tender without being pickled, the sweet aniseed of the fennel bolstered by lemon zest and coriander. But the competition was stiff, with such punchy combinations as marinated feta with plump raisins and pistachios, spicy meatballs with slices of merguez, and a salad of grilled aubergine flavoured with honey and caraway seeds. Try them, and unless you are in the "spoiled rotten" category of diner out, or have had your taste buds removed, you will relish every cunningly spiced mouthful.
This was as promising a start to a meal as I can remember, but before we got stuck into the menu we took note of the mission statement at the top of the page: "Bruno: Soho is a creative voyage through the tastes and textures of the Maghreb and the Lev-ant, presenting re- interpretations of the classical cuisines and flavours of these regions." I read this as a serious chef's plea that his eatery should not be mistaken for a theme restaurant (it isn't after all, called Memories of Marakesh), but for my friend Ivan it sounded a note of warning: "He's excusing himself in advance for not doing things properly."
The fact that you would never find a potato and merguez pancake with green leaves and mint oil in North Africa (or outside Soho, come to that) didn't worry me, as the dish was a delightful variation on the ever-comforting bangers and mash concept. Stuffed squid, olive and fennel casserole which Ivan's wife Pots ordered, felt more the kind of thing that had the blood of authenticity coursing through its veins: and that too was outstanding. Ivan's own choice of starter, pan-fried red mullet with a chick-pea pancake and red salsa, gave him cause to grumble, "you, should never fillet a red mullet," but pressed on the overall combination he let slip that it was "actually delicious".
The main courses gave Ivan an opportunity to develop his thesis: his couscous royale came with al dente vegetables, clearly last minute replacements of the stock vegetables with which the lamb shoulder had been cooked. "But isn't it nicer not to have a mushy carrot?" I asked him. "It might be nicer," he conceded, "but it's also wrong."
Pots and I both chose pastilla (a stuffed savoury pastry) which fuelled the debate further: in Morocco this classic dish would be filled with dove, which makes squab or young wood pigeon the obvious choice for a London version - yet it was duck that was selected for the Soho treatment. My guess is that Loubet decided more punters would order duck than pigeon. He may be right, but I would love to have tried a pigeon version. Despite this we both found the dish with its dried fig chutney, a very appealing proof of the "fruit is good with meat" maxim of Maghreb cookery. And it was nice to get something sweet in, because after the main courses, we were done for - except for mint teas all round.
This kind of cooking venture is certainly prone to accusations of arrogance and compromise. The chef dares to meddle with centuries of tradition, and dares also to know better than his clients. Personally, I don't doubt Bruno Loubet's professional conceit - but who would condemn it, when it comes up with such a scintillating series of dishes as I tasted at his restaurant? Arrogance is implicit in the word "chef", and perhaps the less successful chefs are simply not arrogant enough.
! The Sunday Review's regular restaurant critics, Helen Fielding and John Wells, will return later this yearReuse content