The woman at the next table is looking mournful. “This used to be the best Italian restaurant in London…” she says, plaintively. I’ve only just put my bottom on the seat and picked up the menu. It is overwhelmingly French. Oh dear; is this meal doomed to failure?
“I did like the beef,” my neighbour adds, as I note the empty coffee cup and crumpled napkin. “And the pudding was a triumph...”
So not a completely wasted evening, then?
“No, but where can I get great Italian now?” she mutters, heading out the door.
Bistrot Bruno Loubet is within the Zetter, a cool-for-cats hotel in London’s Clerkenwell. As chef’s name might suggest, he is as French as boudin blanc, although he’s come to the Zetter after 10 years in Melbourne and, before that, he was cooking some excellent Italian fare at Oliver Peyton’s ill-fated Isola in Knightsbridge. So Loubet can turn his hand to a pasta or a fusion dish, should he want to. But the Zetter’s owners, the chaps behind the brilliant nearby Moro restaurant, lured Loubet back from Oz with the promise of his name over the door and the freedom to serve up his beloved bistro food.
From the vantage point of a corner table, with St John’s Square behind me and the gently curved, raised ground-level room in front, I can see Loubet studiously inspecting every order at the pass. Staff in chambray shirts and jeans, with rough cotton aprons (do they really match the curtains? Now there’s a first…) bustle around the room. The specials (whatever’s fresh off the boats in Cornwall, and the veal cut of the day) are written in crayon on a distressed mirrored wall panel – an affecting, if not entirely effective, device.
But back to that menu. I am tempted by pressed seared tuna with lardo and green apple purée. Not that he’d remember, but Loubet and I met at a Slow Food festival in Turin many years ago, and spent a happy morning sampling lardo, which is heavenly. I’d never have let slivers of pure pig fat pass my lips unless implored by a chef, so I am in his debt for that alone.
Loubet is a “rock god”, to quote another chef, because of his brilliance with flavours. So when something sounds as simple as the day’s fish special – skate terrine, parsley jelly with a romanesco salad and gribiche sauce (a starter, £6.50) – it’s worth the gamble. The austere, almost architectural presentation is a surprise but it is a wonderful dish, the subtle skate brought to life by the caper, mustard and egg sauce. The romanesco broccoli, tiny fractal wonders, are zingy and crisp. Mr M starts with beetroot ravioli (hey, lady, here’s your pasta), fried breadcrumbs and sage with rocket salad.
The dark-red flying saucers may look peculiar but they taste superb – the earthy vegetable tempered by ricotta.
How better to test the bistro-ness of a bistro than by eating a daube? Loubet’s is advertised as the classic – stewed beef with Provençale flavours, accompanied by mousseline potatoes (at £16.50). It arrives in Staub cast iron (the Rolex of casseroles), correctly spoonable beef with soft tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. This is seriously high-class comfort food. Mr M’s pan-fried breast of wood pigeon, cauliflower, almond and quinoa and giblet sauce, meanwhile, looks and is more adventurous – served scattered across the plate – but the crunch of the nuts with the meaty pigeon and thinly sliced cauliflower works well. It is at once piquant and woody, a marriage far more successful than it might sound.
The one dud note is a side order of green vegetables – mange tout and more of that romanesco – which comes coated in overpowering snips of herbs.
After the lady next door’s verdict on pudding, and the stellar standard of what we’ve eaten so far, it’s possibly not necessary to order more food, but with Valrhona chocolate tartlet, caramel and salted butter ice-cream on offer, I’m afraid greed gets the better of me. It is, quite simply, the best desert I’ve eaten in recent memory.
Quiveringly fondant chocolate, crisp pastry shell and the salty sweetness of the ice cream all come together in lip-smacking gorgeousness. A triumph? You bet.
I want to give Loubet, still stationed anxiously at the pass, a thumbs-up, but he scarcely needs it. He’s back, in every way, and London is the richer for it.
SCORES: 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
More hotel restaurants
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Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles Hotel
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A dramatic room and all-round experience with inspirational flavours and cooking, and perfect service (though the space admittedly has no windows)
East St, Newport, Pembrokeshire, tel: 01239 820008
New chef Scott Davis has worked with some of the UK’s best chefs, and it shows – this Georgian townhouse restaurant-withrooms serves wonderful fish and seafood.
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.com