The first rule about Bistrotheque is you don't talk about Bistrotheque.
The first rule about Bistrotheque is you don't talk about Bistrotheque. Certainly not to your minicab driver, who will refuse to drive down the grim side street it is hidden on, and instead dump you on a particularly nasty stretch of Hackney highway. And not to the bouncer outside the neon-lit doorway glittering among the bricked-up warehouses. No, Yuppie fool, that's not a restaurant, it's a Thai boxing gym. Keep walking. You will find Bistrotheque, eventually, on the other side of the road, in a converted clothing factory. The entrance is unmarked.
Yes, that absurdity of New York nightlife has finally arrived in London: the super-hip new venue in the middle of nowhere. New York's scenemakers love the new new thing, and will happily negotiate endless bridges and tunnels, as long as it means giving the slip to the bridge and tunnel crowd. And so it apparently is among the artists and fashion people of east London.
Now that Shoreditch is overrun with lads and lasses on big nights out, two of the original architects of the Shoreditch scene have moved east, to the badlands between Bethnal Green and Hackney, to open Bistrotheque, a fun-palace for the fashionable. In an area where warehouses and light industrial buildings are still being used for warehousing and light industry, a spacious 1930s building has been carved into a bar (wigged-out Victoriana), restaurant (gallery-white minimalism) and performance space (dubbed the Play Room, and featuring films, bands and games nights). Even before its official opening date, the place has been positively crawling with YBAs.
I took a Hackney local, the TV presenter Anita Rani, and a couple of her mates. And thank goodness I did. Otherwise how would I have known that the troll-like man in a headband who looked like a refugee from Foreigner's road crew was actually Hoxton's hippest DJ? Or that the woefully out-of-place Sloane in Lady Di wedge-cut and pearls was in fact sporting the latest in Shoreditch chic?
When it came to the menu, I was on surer ground. It's printed on the place-settings, and combines modern British standards with a few French bistro crowd-pleasers. Think Ivy-lite - lobster and chips, calves' liver with onion gravy, coq au vin. There's a promising attention to provenance; the steak is rare-breed, the cheese from foodie temple La Fromagerie, and the eclectic wine list favours interesting small producers.
Sadly the kitchen doesn't deliver on that promise. The owners have said that though the food is simple, they want to create "the ultimate version of each dish". And they certainly succeed, if by "ultimate" they mean you never want to eat that item again. Of the 10 dishes we tried between the four of us, at least half were below par. Among the edited lowlights: seared foie gras which arrived several degrees colder than the toasted brioche it sat on; an over-sweet French onion soup that lacked the depth of flavour you get from good beef stock; a sauce to accompany roast black leg chicken which was reminiscent of Campbell's mushroom soup (and that really is taking the whole retro comfort thing too far).
And worst of all, by a long way, cod and chips, featuring two tennis balls of fish in puffy, Chinese-takeaway-style batter, and stale, claggy chips. Never before in my years of restaurant criticism have I had to apologise to someone for encouraging them to order fish and chips. As for the side dishes, that's exactly where they stayed - on the side. You can just about make a case for al dente green beans, but al dente new potatoes? No thanks.
Simple food has to be absolutely perfect, and this manifestly wasn't. But I guess the food isn't the main attraction of Bistrotheque. As with the other ventures the owners have been involved in (they include 333, the Shoreditch Electricity Showrooms and the Bricklayers Arms), it's the thrill of being an early-adopting insider which will be the main draw of the place. That and the entertainment. We were disappointed to have missed the previous night's show, starring "lip-synching trannies miming to pop songs".
While we were waiting for our puddings a klaxon-like alarm went off, and a frisson went round the dining room. A raid, perhaps? Maybe the owner of the building would burst in, Fight Club-style, shouting "What's all this about lip-synching trannies?" The truth emerged when my tarte tatin was presented in a badly charred state. It had obviously caught fire and set off the alarm in the kitchen. Still, might as well serve it, eh?
I don't feel qualified to predict whether Bistrotheque is going to set this corner of east London alight. Certainly there are artists and designers around, displaced from Shoreditch by rising rents and property developers. But whether these artists are prepared to pay £22.50 for lobster and chips is another matter. "If they introduce trannie waiters, I might consider coming again," was Anita's verdict. Just before she and her friends slipped off to spend the rest of the night in Shoreditch. E
Bistrotheque, 23-27 Wadeson Street, London E2 (020-8983 7900)
SECOND HELPINGS: EAST END DIAMONDS
By Caroline Stacey
Exmouth Bar & Grill
Tough and tender, modern and retro (Angus Steakhouse-style red decor), meat and fish. Decide how your food's cooked, with which sauce (chilli jam, salsas) and one of a dozen flavoured mashes.
55-57 Exmouth Market, London EC1 (020-7837 0009)
Cavernous bar with one womb-like pink corner and another with deli counter, T has grown out of the Shoreditch art scene. Eat all day from deli-style breakfasts, afternoon platters to bar suppers.
56 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 (020-7729 2973)
The sound of lager-drinking suits fills the ground-floor of a warehouse. Rather a barrier to the restaurant, where the open kitchen delivers dishes that stretch the definition of Italian.
55-61 Tabernacle Street, London EC2 (020-7253 5555)
Related to Moro in Exmouth Market, this groovy hotel's restaurant and bar shows up other new neighbours like The Priory. Very assured Med cooking and a suave clientele with a bit of EC1 edge.
86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1 (020-7324 4455)Reuse content