Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Zetter Hotel, St John’s Square, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1
When I tell people what I do for a living, the question they most often ask is, do the restaurants know beforehand that you're coming? To which I answer, "No, but I always book in as Fay Maschler, just to keep them on their toes." The business of anonymity among reviewers is something of a red herring. After all, if the kitchen can't cook and the front of house is inept, just knowing there's a professional diner in the house won't make them significantly raise their game.
Despite my rudimentary attempts to conceal my identity, occasionally I'm rumbled, and when that happens, far from getting better, everything tends to go to pieces. The kitchen sends out extra dishes, slowing everything down. The manager comes over to chat, leaving the rest of the party drumming their fingers. And waiters get nervous.
I suspect this may have been the case at Bistrot Bruno Loubet, where an otherwise convivial dinner was skewed by a waiter who seemed to be experiencing some kind of mini-meltdown, triggered by a glimpse of my notebook. OK, so there may have been a short delay in him coming over to take our pre-dinner drinks order, but we had barely noticed. Until he started apologising for his lapse. Then he erupted tableside to ask how we were enjoying the food, before anyone had managed to taste a mouthful. At which point his self-flagellation built to a level worthy of the disgraced CEO of a Japanese corporation.
It's a shame our waiter made the strongest impression of the evening, because here was a restaurant I'd really been looking forward to visiting, in common with everyone else who cherished fond memories of chef Bruno Loubet's Soho bistro in the Nineties, and subsequent tenure at the glamorous L'Odeon.
Loubet has spent much of the past decade working in Brisbane, and for this much-anticipated return to London, has shunned the hurly-burly of the West End for the quieter charms of Clerkenwell. The owners of designer hotel The Zetter have imported him to lend his sparkle to a restaurant that never quite lived up to the promise of its location. Clerkenwell is what Shoreditch wants to be when it grows up. The restaurant looks out over a cobbled square of such loft-ish gorgeousness that, as you approach, you can almost hear the sax solo from that classic Halifax ad.
Inside, the restaurant curves glamorously around a huge central bar, like a Dragons' Den version of L'Odeon, its superb sightlines quirkily broken up with all sorts of shabby-chic, light-industrial props. With Kind of Blue on the sound-system, everything about the place exudes urban good taste of an unchallenging kind.
The surprises come with a menu which takes bistro dishes in interesting new directions, partnering snails with meatballs, hare royale with dried mandarin purée and wood pigeon with quinoa, dishes which prompted the more timid of my companions to venture that the menu seemed to be "road-kill based".
Our starters trod a sure path between artlessness and finesse. Onion and cider soup held a floating mini-souffle of Emmenthal cheese rather than croutons, while a "revised" Lyonnaise salad contained indulgent fingers of breaded, deep-fried pig's trotter and shards of pig's ear among its green leaves. The restrained flavours of guinea fowl boudin blanc were punched up by a gorgeous savoury broth of peas, barley and ham, while perfect little ravioli burst open to flood the mouth with an intense beetroot shot.
In keeping with the Clerkenwell location, there's something of the artisan about Loubet's food, which favours personality over prettiness. Beef daube, meltingly soft and served with luxurious mousseline potatoes, came to table in an earthenware casserole for self-service, while lamb shoulder, accompanied by white beans and green harissa, was pressed into a dome-like mound, giving the plate the funny-face look traditionally used to tempt a fussy child. Both tasted great, though; less so, the fish of the day, pollock, given a whistles-and-bells treatment which couldn't disguise the fact that though it's the sustainable alternative to cod, it is very much the duller fish.
Our intention to share puddings, including a lovely rhubarb and crème fraîche tart, was thwarted by the fact that the four of us had been seated at a table for eight, obliging us to bellow at each other, and form a human chain to pass food around for tasting.
There's nothing bistro-ish about the scale of BBL's dining room; it's a buzzy, bustling place which already feels like it's been around for ages. It was packed, a week after opening, but they're still finessing things. With our bill, our waiter handed us a feedback card, pre-emptively apologising for what he thought we'd deem inadequate service. I cheated a bit, by giving BBL top marks in every category. Sorry about that. Let's just hope they thought I was Fay.
Bistrot Bruno Loubet Zetter Hotel, St John’s Square, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1 (020-7324 4455)
Around £40 a head, before 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"
Side Orders: Best bistros
88 Commercial Street, Edinburgh (0131 553 5933)
Start here with the Alsacienne tarte flambée, followed by Daniel's legendary Scottish fish casserole (£14.95)
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
66 Baker Street, London W1 (020-7935 4007)
The superlative bistrot cuisine on offer here includes crisp confit duck leg, with black pudding and salade Lyonnaise (£14.50).
Aykley Heads, Durham (0191 384 4354)
Mains at this classic bistro include Monkfish Tail "Osso Bucco" with peperonata, crispy Parma ham and sautéed potatoes (£17.50).
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