The pioneer of Modern British goes up West
Saturday 28 June 1997
Marco Pierre White recently boasted that there would soon be no room for the small fry of the restaurant world: he and Terence Conran will have carved up London between them. Stephen Bull, you can be sure, would never say such a thing. Everything about his restaurants is subtle and graceful; they're cool, but not too cool.
Yet Bull, too, is expanding. In addition to Blandford Street and his Smithfield place, he has just acquired his first restaurant in the heart of the West End.
Although an undoubted pioneer of what has come to be known as "Modern British cooking", Bull insisted to me on the Englishness of his food. He does, indeed, borrow very little from non-European cuisines, but his ingredients don't seem especially British, and his smoothness feels very French - like David Hume, of whom it was said, he wrote English like a Frenchman.
The new Stephen Bull restaurant - in Upper St. Martin's Lane, a few doors from Stringfellows - continues in the style of the other two, with a discreet sign outside and an inscrutably contemporary interior. The West End, however, does not come cheap, and the new place has something of a shoe-box feel. Bull's designers have done their best: a simple, white interior is broken by leather banquette-thingies running up the wall to the ceiling. "It's like Sleeper," my companion said, "but without the orgasmatron."
Our meal did not reach the heights of a lunch I had recently at Blandford Street, though it had its moments. Beginning, in Hegelian fashion, at the end, the desserts were the weakest point of the menu, principally because they made no gesture to seasonability: rum junket and cinnamon biscuits, creamed sultana and ginger pudding, warm apple sable, and blue cheese and walnut feuillete, all gave the impression that no one knew winter was over (although recent weather would support that view). Of the desserts we chose, the semolina and lemon curd cake with plum compote was the best.
The two first courses, on the other hand, were definite highs. My sister's summer vegetable salad - various leaves, broad beans, warm potatoes, slivers of courgette and turnip with a minty dressing - tasted, as the best things can, like a happy accident. Each element in a vaguely Middle-Eastern plate of starters, including tzatziki, spinach and feta strudel, and artichoke and tomato salad, tasted perfect, and constituted a lovingly prepared dish.
The middle courses, however, were of contrasting merit. Fillets of red mullet and sardines, both crisply fried, came on a stodgy tagliatelli salad. But a slow-baked shoulder of lamb came with rich juices and fell apart on my fork.
The wine list at Blandford Street is arranged by region, but at St Martin's Lane it is configured by style, and has helpful descriptions. Can it be that Stephen Bull believes the private practitioners of Harley Street know their wines better than the media managers of the West End? It was hard to read much from the diners around us, but they included Janet Street- Porter and a family with a nearly anorexic girl - a reminder of the downside of our foodie culture.
Our bill for two was pounds 80. A cheaper pre-theatre menu is available from 5.45pm-7pm
Stephen Bull, 12 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-379 7811), Amex, Mastercard, Visa, wheelchair access; closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday
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