I hesitate because Boudin Blanc, sister restaurant of another couth little place in South Kensington called La Bouchee, doesn't call for critical attention. It doesn't seem to need it or want it. It seems happy simply being a useful little bistro. Well, tough luck. Boudin Blanc is too nifty to leave alone.
To begin, it is one of the only real bargains in Mayfair: a very decent meal might cost pounds 15. Next among its charms is the canopied outdoor seating. These tables on the pavement tangle with those of Boudin Blanc's famous neighbour, the Lebanese restaurant Al Hamra, in a cool pedestrianised alley off Shepherd's Market. A waiter tells me that occasionally customers of one restaurant sit at the other's tables, and have even been known to receive one another's food and bills. This would only be a disappointment if you got one of Boudin Blanc's chokingly dry taboulehs, or from Al Hamra a chokingly high bill.
Inside, Boudin Blanc is cramped and noisy. Floating above the voices is what sounds like continental jazz, slightly overdone as if for a film soundtrack, intermingled with light Latinate tracks from, among others, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.
The (mainly male) staff and chef are Gallic as they come. They work with casual confidence. Service is not perfect, but somehow this doesn't matter in its wake of friendliness and swagger.
The chef, Philippe Sublet, was recruited to Britain by Albert Roux, and has worked in a country house hotel and Le Gavroche. A modest man, he plays down quite how difficult an apprenticeship that was. By contrast, the style Sublet adopts at Boudin Blanc could not be more casual. He cooks simple French food, oddly peppered with some Italian dishes. How wise the foray south of the Alps is depends on how one feels about stodgy gnocchi with mushrooms in a perfect stock.
Where the cooking is sound, it is mainly French or based on French techniques. Prawns served in a creamy sauce with fresh Thai spicing were delicious. Grilled white sausage with gutsy (slightly overcooked) pommes boulan-gere was workaday and fine. Braised monkfish, whimsically called 'osso bucco de lotte', was very pleasing. Vegetables, rarely a strong point, included earthy, almost molten mushrooms.
A 1992 Vignier Vigneron Chardonnay (pounds 11) was a perfect summer wine, served at the perfect temperature, drunk swiftly and quickly replaced with another like it.
Coffee, inadvisable to drink late at night, was excellent and worth risking sleepless torment, especially the espresso. Even more unwise was following it up with all manner of digestifs, from Glenfiddich to Cointreau.
The staff waited patiently for us to leave so they could shut. I suspect they are old hands at dealing with customers who are having rather too much fun, too late.
Boudin Blanc, 5 Trebeck Street W1. 071-499 3292. Open lunch and dinner daily. Approx pounds 15-pounds 20. Major cards except Diners and Switch.
. . . and suggests three good places to eat
COVENT GARDEN: The 51-year-old Mon Plaisir (21 Monmouth Street WC2, 071-836 7243) remains one of the great pleasures of this once-bohemian district. I have never strayed from the steak and frites formula and have never been disappointed. It's the sort of place one dreams of stumbling into, but it's best to book. Set-price 3-course lunch pounds 13.95; pre-theatre 3-course dinner with coffee and wine pounds 13.95. Open lunch Mon-Fri and dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa, Switch and Diners.
KINGSTON: Some of the best bistro cooking in England can be found at Max and Marc Renzland's Petit Max, (97a High Street, Hampton Wick, 081-977 0236) and their new, more professional, Chez Max, (168 Ifield Road SW10, 071-835 0874). At the Kingston restaurant booking is essential: dinners and Sunday lunches are served on a time-share arrangement with a local cafe. The cooking at both is superb. Dishes might include perfect spicy aubergine puree, cold poached salmon with sauce verte, roast leg of rabbit with fresh girolles and puy lentils in mustard cream. Set 3-course meals pounds 23.50. Bring-your-own booze at Kingston; short wine list or pounds 3.50 corkage in Fulham. Changeable prices and hours.
FITZROVIA: At Christmas 1991 the new wave Indian restaurant Jamdami metamorphosed into the (equally new wave) French restaurant Pied a Terre (34 Charlotte Street W1, 071-636 1178). The conversion may have been DIY, but the cooking and service is serious. Signature dishes include melting braised pork spiced with ginger.
Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Visa, Access. Set-price lunch pounds 19.50, dinner pounds 39.50. (Closed last two weeks of August).
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