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)

Food 4 stars
Ambience 4 stars
Service 3 stars

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

Daniel's Bistro

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).

Bistro 21

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).

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence