Bob Bob Ricard, 1-3 Upper James Street, London W1
Saturday 10 January 2009
If restaurants were as rigorously market-researched as movies, would Bob Bob Ricard ever have made it through the testing process? The concept is fine – a Wolseley-style brasserie open from breakfast to 3am is a welcome addition to the Soho scene. But that name – what were they thinking?
The "Ricard" would just about have worked on its own; the feel of the place is French, and Ricard is the pastis of choice in French brasseries. But the food is trad Brit with a twist, which is presumably why they chucked in that demotic double Bob. It doesn't work. Since I visited BBR, I've recommended it to several people, and each time been met with incomprehension, not helped by the fact that it's impossible to say the word Ricard without putting on a comedy French accent.
Oh well, as Soho's other unpronounceable restaurants Yauatcha and Incognico have proved, it's possible to hang in there if the offer is appealing enough. And BBR is unexpectedly good. On the site of what used to be Circus, a media-friendly restaurant with a fashionable basement bar, it's an eccentric, retro-themed brasserie inspired by the golden age of rail travel, which is as good-looking as any restaurant in town.
Designer David Collins has created the same sense of golden-hued nostalgic glamour he achieved at the Wolseley, but using a slightly more playful palette. Waiters in powder-pink blazers nip between a grid of marble-topped tables, divided up for twos or fours, each equipped with a button to call the champagne trolley. Cubist chandeliers hang from a high Venetian-mirrored ceiling, and faux ancestral portraits gaze down across a room expensively decked in dark wood, glowing leather and polished brass.
The menu offers options for every dining occasion known to man – this is surely the only restaurant in Soho offering both Kellogg's cornflakes for breakfast and caviar and blinis at two in the morning. The lunch and dinner menus, from ex-Le Pont de la Tour head chef James Walker, are relatively short, but full of personality and provenance, with options available for two people to share, including shepherd's pie and macaroni cheese (the latter priced at an unfathomable £11.50 per person).
Wearing their outlandish costumes with some dignity, the waiting staff are clearly a cut above the norm, raising hopes that the food may be as important to the concept as the design. And so it proved. The dishes we tried were uniformly good: simple, well-conceived and pleasingly enhanced with characterful tracklements. Potted middle- white pork, served in its own mini Mason jar, was rich without being over-fatty, paired with a delicate perry jelly and fingers of thyme-dusted Melba toast. Spiced parsnip soup, with a ramekin of parsnip crisps to sprinkle on top, struck just the right balance of sweetness and spiced warmth.
The core menu of standard brasserie dishes is supplemented by interesting daily specials, which included roast partridge and lobster thermidor (£38). I tried the fish special, a tranche of wild halibut (£19.75), lightly cooked under a golden crust, served with a tangle of garlicky wild mushrooms. Chicken curry was very much of the Anglo-Indian school, featuring generous chunks of meat in a sweet, korma-like sauce, garnished with fresh banana and pineapple pickle; sounds awful, I know, but very enjoyable.
The nostalgia theme was echoed at the next table, where they were pouring themselves beef tea from a burnished silver teapot. Little did the owners know, when planning these little end-of-Empire touches, how timely that theme would seem when the restaurant opened. But for every champagne button, there is also a tableside socket, suitable both for the breakfast toaster, or for a mid-afternoon laptop-and-Lapsang session. This day-long flexibility rescues BBR from seeming like some grotesquely timed folly.
Some of the pricing does seem questionable, from that millionaires' macaroni, to the £10.25 for a cheese plate comprising modest slices of three British cheeses – Stinking Bishop, Ticklemore and Stichelton – with more of the perry jelly. With a couple of glasses of wine each, we ended up paying around £70 a head including service.
What BBR does have is that quality so elusive in a new restaurant: romance. The bar downstairs, with its floor laid out like a backgammon board, is pure Orient Express. And the booth-based layout of the restaurant gives it both buzz and intimacy; on the Saturday night we visited, the clientele was made up largely of couples, plus a party of obnoxious fashionistas, whose bellowing for their missing driver brought reception to an appalled standstill.
It's handy to know about a place like this, though, just one minute from Piccadilly Circus and offering a refuge from the madness that engulfs Soho at night. There's something heartening about a restaurant that tries so hard to please, and does it in its own quirky way. In fact, I'd pronounce it a hit – if I could pronounce it at all.
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