Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge, SW1
Saturday 29 May 2010
Your heart may not leap with recognition at Daniel Boulud's name, but it comes trailing clouds of glory from New York, where he's a big star. Originally from Lyon, he relocated to the Grand Pomme in 1982. Eleven years later, in 1993, his first restaurant, Daniel, opened to acclaim and has just picked up its third Michelin star. In the intervening 17 years, he opened four more New York establishments, and sister restaurants in Florida, Las Vegas and Vancouver. He even, with the Maison Boulud à Pekin, introduced thunderstruck Chinese diners to the wonders of French bistro fare.
The empire-building M Boulud has taken his time bringing his expertise to London. The fact that he's surfaced at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, that commands the main drag of Knightsbridge, is not a surprise. What's surprising is how much of a bar it actually feels. The evening we went, the drinking area was full of local Knightsbridgeans – confident men in Hugo Boss suits, women in DKNY skinny jeans, diamante belts and strappy tops – drinking champagne. M Boulud himself was much in evidence, gliding through the crush, immaculately coiffed and sleek.
The place itself isn't immediately appealing: it's subterranean, with a ceiling so low as to attract only the most gifted limbo dancers. The tables are cheap wood veneer, unburdened by white cloths. The décor is predominantly beige and brown. We were seated against the end wall, dominated by photographs of stains: the stains of expensive wines (eg, a 1964 Romanée-Conti, Burgundy) on a muslin cloth as their final lees were poured through it. It's an odd thing to celebrate visually – the stains look so unpleasantly like something else.
Boulud is clearly barmy about charcuterie, and it shows, though most of the stuff here isn't his creation. The menu proudly announces that its cold meats are the work of Gilles Verot, a third-generation charcutière. We began with a tasting plate of all M Verot's work. Pâté grand-mère (chicken liver with pork and cognac) and grand-père (foie gras with truffle juice and port) were both blissful, reeking with coarse country flavour, dense with alcohol. A tourte de canard was layered like a cross-section of the Earth's crust but was delicious, with its tang of figs amid the duck and foie gras. After these, a mini-terrine of lamb tagine, and another of braised beef cheek seemed a little slimy and pungent. But, as my date pointed out, the display of all these constituents on a wooden platter, with folds of Iberian ham and a celery-apple remoulade, looked like the perfect picnic.
The only problem was how to eat anything else. From a menu that swung between retro-French classics and eccentric New York-ish offerings of burgers and sausages, I tried the "beer braised feather blade", an old-fashioned beef carbonnade, but with a difference. Instead of lumps of stewing steak, it offered a whole slab of feather-blade (a cut between neck and forerib with a vein of muscle running through it) that was tender enough to eat with a plastic fork: gooey, fibrous, aching with more flavour than any steak of living memory, it was sensational. (M Boulud told me later it had been cooked sous-vide for 72 hours straight.) Accompanying baby carrots and confited shallots were gorgeous too. The only thing that spoilt this slow-cooked miracle was a gloopy carrot sauce that went everywhere.
My date's coq au vin was also a triumph, the chicken melting like a communion wafer on the tongue, the mushrooms, onions and lardons languidly dancing attendance, the sauce rich and sticky. Both dishes featured odd grace notes: my tiny vegetables came with sticks of salty pretzel, while my friend had a side-order of spatzle, that slightly pointless German potato-pasta, served with a butter sauce. The rationale behind either defeated me, but by then I was groaning with repletion, and past caring about details.
We forced ourselves, poor things, to share a custard cake with brandied cherries. The cake was a touch dry, but the cherries tasted of "summer fruits with Christmas round the edges". All this sumptuous repast had cost, I noted, just over £60, an astonishingly cheap blow-out in the heart of expensive London. But because the wine-list leant so appealingly on the Burgundy and Rhône regions, I was tempted by a £48 Gigondas 2006, which opened up like a great spicy flower over an hour or so.
M Boulud's establishment may be more 1970s provincial French bistro than 2010 London eaterie, but when the carping stops, you notice that his attention to the old-fashioned virtue of flavoursome cooking is faultless. He and his Bar are hugely welcome in the metropolis. I could even forgive him the gross oenological stains all over the wall.
Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1, (020-7235 2000)
About £120 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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