I have never liked this restaurant, particularly the tables beneath the stairs, which manage to seat people where coats belong. Mr Bull knows this. When he spotted us halfway through our meal, he greeted us cordially, joking about it, then instructed the waiters to offer us free cognacs (which were declined). He need not have bothered. Our meal, which was booked anonymously and paid for in full, was extremely pleasant.
Those who have not eaten at Mr Bull's restaurants may still have heard of him if only because, until recently, he was given to naming restaurants after himself: Stephen Bull in Marylebone and Stephen Bull's Bistro and Bar in Clerkenwell. He named his latest after its location: Fulham Road.
The Clerkenwell bistro is his cheapest, noisiest and most modern restaurant. The soaring feeling of space owes mainly to its two floors' worth of lofty ceilings. This provides a handy illusion, for on the ground the arrangement is all rather compact. Reach for your bag and you may come up with your neighbour's shoe.
Still, the great geometric swathes of colour, vaulting ceiling and supercool air-conditioning is impressive, and the place is altogether chic enough to have featured recently in a Royal Institute of British Architects exhibition on restaurant design. No doubt it would still have qualified had Mr Bull not been one of the sponsors. At least three things save him from being a self-promoter with a brandy bottle for critics: great style, a worried perfectionism and the ability to cook. His was a studied leap into catering, involving an apprenticeship with Peter Langan, a first restaurant in north Wales and a second in Richmond, (which was awarded a Michelin star).
He has become such a seasoned pro that our photographer, dispatched to shoot the opening of Fulham Road, remarked on his eye for detail when he saw Bull refuse new linen that had not, as he had asked, been laundered to soften its newness. What really empowers him is the ability to cook. He is not at the mercy of chefs waving the latest ingredient, be it Italian extra virgin single estate olive oil, sub-nuclear Thai chilli or saltless Norwegian dried cod. He is a chef himself, self taught, largely from the exacting Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Berthole.
That he no longer cooks is not the point. He teaches. And, to judge from our meal, he is mid-lesson with the latest apprentice. Several dishes were curiously wintry, notably pork loin with celeriac puree and breast of duck with sauteed livers, Guinness and sage mash. Furthermore, it would seem that whoever is cooking these days has also done time with Marco Pierre White. There seems no other explanation for listing roast saddle of rabbit with langoustines, one of the few fundamentally unpleasant dishes that truly great chef has ever thought up.
A dish called 'scallops dauphinois', in which several scallops got the famous potato treatment, seemed a triumph of kitchen economy over season. Granted, it tasted good. To continue being fair, though it's not as much fun, there was ample summery stuff elsewhere on the menu, and what we sampled of it was very presentable.
A salad with diced, fried chorizo, shelled broad beans and a thick anchoade was unconventional, but fine. The sauce, a thick puree involving huge amounts of garlic, anchovy and oil, was generously spiked with herbs; basil predominated. Not so much a salad dressing as a spread for toast, in which case less long-suffering lettuce and better bread than the spongy stuff served would have suited.
The outright star of the meal, which might also bear the influence of Marco Pierre White, was roast sea trout. The fish was pinkish (hopefully a wild rather than chemical pink), the flesh firm, its skin dry, salty and crisp. Perfect. It was served in a beautifully spiced rich red wine sauce, which tasted as if had a touch of star anise in it, and was flecked with red. This could have been finely diced red onion, or red cabbage. In any case, it looked pretty.
To the side was an artfully served curl of mashed potates, beautifully seasoned and studded generously with spring onion. A blue cheese, celery and bacon risotto was OK, the rice a bit toothsome, the setting a bit loose, the flavourings all good.
Mr Bull's restaurants have always had silly puddings. This is no exception. In one, a chocolate muffin sat in mint sauce with curls of white chocolate around it, a kind of up-market Baskin Robbins confection. Peach and saffron parfait seemed to have freezer fatigue, and was a waste of saffron.
The wine list is exemplary. Anything you order will make you feel clever. At least this was the effect of Number 13, an elegant Burgundian chardonnay for the reasonable sum of pounds 16. Lastly, the staff could not have been kinder, swifter, or more hospitable (even before Mr Bull recognised a locum critic in the house).
Stephen Bull's Bistro and Bar, 71 St John Street, EC1 (071-490 1750). Open lunch Mon-Fri and dinner Mon-Sat. Approx pounds 30 for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Visa, Mastercard, Amex.