- Dinner: starters approx £6-11, mains approx. £12-22, desserts £6-8, plus a number of special menu items such as charcuterie (individual items £6.50-11, platters at £14 or £28) & burgers (£12-13.50)
- You can click on any of the images below for full-resolution files
Bar Food at Bar Boulud
Food blogging is a peculiar pursuit. You often get invited to events, you sometimes go, and once in a while they are really great. This was one such occasion. I met Heather Cowper at a rather random event hosted by lastminute.com a few months back. This was interesting because she is not a food blogger, but a travel blogger – another obscure species – and I had never met one before (I had seen them in cages, though). We had a nice chat and, somehow, I must have not come off as a complete bore and/or tosser.
How do I know this? Because when she organized a meal at Bar Boulud (BB) at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (MO) for a table of bloggers (Krista and Gourmet Chick were also in attendance), she for some inexplicable reason decided to invite yours truly. Laissez fare enough. Pardon the appalling pun-itive damage (gag), but I am stuck in an airport and my plane is more than three hours delayed and ain’t leaving until midnight at the earliest. So there.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. The big DB and his BB (there are, as of yet, no plans for a BB’s Little Brother). From my experiences of his establishments in New York over the years, I like the guy, his food and the way he has his restaurants run. His flagship restaurant has always served excellent food, if a bit safe, and his less formal offshoots are generally very solid as well (check out a great review from Ulterior Epicure of a recent meal at Café Boulud).
For New Yorkers in particular, and to some degree throughout the US, DB has a big profile – á la GR (apt acronym?) in the UK. Along with Danny Meyer, Keith McNally and a few others, he’s definitely one of the big players on the Manhattan restaurant scene. So it’s interesting that he’s decided to give London a shot, especially when so many NY transplants have bombed so quickly.
BB has its own entrance on the left side of the MO, if you’re facing the building. It’s fairly nondescript, so if you didn’t know about it and weren’t a hotel guest, you’d probably just keep walking, despite the doorman decked out in a black suit.
I managed to find it easily enough and, as usual, arrived a bit early, so took a stroll through Harvey Nichol’s fifth floor of food and drink (well, I just hung out in the wine department and contemplated their exceedingly good range of Champagne). I just barely managed to get out of there without purchasing anything.
Upon entering BB, I wasn’t exactly sure who else I’d be dining with, but was lead to a rectangular raised table in the bar area, which afforded me a good view of the front dining room. There were two other bloggers already there who I didn’t know (Anthony, who runs the very cool Mr & Mrs Smith travel blog and Eva), making me fashionably not first one to arrive.
Before moving on, I would like to clear up one inaccuracy that I’ve noticed in reports about the restaurant. There are windows, and they do provide some natural light – granted this is only in the front of the dining room, but they are there. So there.
Before I knew what had hit me, David Vareille, the restaurant’s sommelier had taken the stage at the head of our table and began regaling us with entertaining tales about the fermented grape juice he was bursting to tell us about. This guy is a treasure. He is outspoken, very knowledgeable and definitely beats to the tune of his own drum. There are some real gems within his cellar’s booty, and we were lucky enough to taste a few of them, many of which won’t set you back all that much.
Another great feature of BB is that they feature a large bottle of the day, every day. David picks a magnum (or other large format bottle) that he thinks is interesting for whatever reason and then comes up with a very reasonable price per glass, so that customers can experience a wine they may not otherwise be able to try. For example, if he opened up a Mouton or a Lafite, you might be able to sample a glass for around £45-55 (depending on the vintage), which although still ridiculously expensive, is reasonable within the context of this royal couple of the wine world. It’s worth popping down just to see what the large bottle of the day is. I think he should start a twitter account and announce what large bottle they will be serving that day and name the price.
But once again I digress. We were there to eat some food, right?
A Meeting of Meats
As I’ve already written a lengthy preamble – hey, what else is new – I will be sparse with my culinary comments. You may think this is a deliberate choice, but the reality is that I had a bit too much of David’s wines, didn’t take notes, and that my detailed recollection of everything is slightly patchy at best. So I am sparing you from my usual more anatomical dissections. Everyone can drink to that.
Okay, so if you don’t read another sentence after this, pay attention to this one. We were able to sample all of their charcuterie…and it is phenomenal – I would recommend going alone just for this if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing.
All of the chartcuterie is courtesy of Gilles Verot, who (from memory) supplies DB’s establishments on the other side of the pond, so you don’t need much more background than that. Of particular note for me were the Tourte au Canard (duck, foie gras, figs and pastry crust), Pâté Grand-Père (coarse country pâté, foie gras, truffle juice and port), Lapin de Garrigue (Provençal pulled rabbit, carrot, courgette and herbs) and the Jambon de Bayonne (Basque cured ham).
A plate with a variety of vegetables, olive oil-marinated cod, shrimp and aioli dipping sauce was also brought out (not pictured), and while the sauce was nice, I don’t think I would have paid the £18 for this platter. Strangely enough, the thing I enjoyed most on the plate was the exceedingly fresh and crunchy radishes.
Next, some sausages appeared – and they just kept coming. I wish I had taken notes, but I didn’t, so all I can tell you is that I loved the spicy sausages on the left side of the above picture. The one on the right wasn’t bad, but was in my bottom two.
I had read rave reviews of the boudin blanc sausages, but I would actually make these the other sausages in my bottom two. They were rich, due to the infusion of truffles, and soft, but they didn’t hold much interest for me. Not bad by any means, just not a personal favorite. The accompanying mash was pretty good.
I actually enjoyed the pork-filled Thai sausages a bit more. They had a firm texture, sort of like a Swedish frank, and were accompanied by a nice spicy sauce and Asian garnishing with papaya on the side – they went down a treat.
The darker boudin babies were rich, but not too rich for my blood (another bad pun, as they are made from blood and pig’s head), and were complemented by scallion potato and piment d’espelette. They would make a nice big appetizer or a smallish main course, and would probably leave you quite content with life.
There has been a lot of hype about BBBs (last B = burgers, keep up already). We were lucky enough to have a sampling of all three. This meant that they cut each burger up into quarters, so we could mix and match. The disadvantage of this was that they got a little bit cold, but I wasn’t complaining. They were all cooked well (medium rare) and had brioche-type buns (the ‘Frenchie’ bun was slightly peppered and the ‘Piggie’ bun had cheddar baked in). As Krista pointed out, though, none of them were toasted, nearly a cardinal sin for some burger aficionados. The quality of the meat, and the rest of the fillings, was excellent and I enjoyed them all. They didn’t get me particularly excited, but they were some of the better ones (top three) I’ve sampled in London. Out of the three variations, I enjoyed the ‘Yankee’ the best (it’s the plain one, and I usually like my burgers fairly unadorned) and the ‘Frenchie’ (my wife is French, but that’s not why – I particularly enjoyed the green chilli mayonnaise and BBQ pulled pork).
Better still was the main course of lemon sea bass which we shared. I only had a few bites, but the skill of the kitchen was obvious here. The fish was very fresh, had been cooked perfectly, with a crispy golden exterior, and kept moist and flaky inside. I loved the accompaniments as well. This was a simple but fairly flawless dish.
I didn’t take a clear photo of it (so no image), but we also sampled the Chop-Chop Salad, an homage to New York I suppose, which was quite refreshing given all the meat resting in our belabored stomachs by that point. It was actually a really enjoyable salad and it’s available at lunchtime for £6.50, though if you want to put a half lobster in it – which I thought was totally unnecessary and counterintuitive as lobster is a luxury ingredient and salad ain’t, right? – that will cost you an extra £15!
Unfortunately, many of the desserts were a disappointment, a shame as they all sounded (and looked ) so good too. The chocolate and raspberry cake was perfectly passable, and was certainly nicely presented, but it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. No X Factor, so maybe it should audition for Gâteau’s Got Talent.
The humble Basque cake was also fine, and a pretty honest rendition of the classic dessert from the region. I guess these kind of simple cakes are not really my thing, so while it was good (not overly dry and plenty of flavour), it didn’t send my pulse racing.
The chocolate mocha tart was better, with a deep rich chocolate flavor and a luscious sphere of caramel ice cream plopped down beside it.
The above dessert served in a Martini glass was as pretty as a picture, and was a refreshing taste after the aforementioned tartage. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but the mascarpone foam and the coconut-passion fruit sorbet were both enjoyable.
Possibly the best of the bunch was the classic French dessert of Íle Flottante. It was pretty perfect, and nearly as nice as the one I had at Arbutus a while back (which, by the way, is currently the banner image at the top of this blog), though it did lack the crunch factor that makes the latter one so memorable. Anyway, BB’s version had air-light meringue and the crème anglaise and strawberries were the perfect foil. It was very moreish.
The biggest let-down of the evening for me, however, was the chocolate mint dessert. Pourquoi? Because, despite my love for fine cuisine, I simply adore mint chocolate chip ice cream – it’s a childhood thing – and always order it if it’s on the list and doesn’t look too fake a shade of green. I pretty much love anything that has chocolate and mint together (Aqua Fresh, you listening?). I don’t know why, but this just tasted wrong. Something in the mint smacked of artificiality. I would doubt that they use any dodgy ingredients at BB, but it just let me down…so I went back to my work as producer of Lost, i.e. I made that floating island disappear.
Unloved Regions, Lovely Wines
David walked us through some brilliant regional French wines over the course of the evening, selecting particular bottles to go with the different courses. He is particularly partial to Burgundy as he hails from near Chablis (coincidentally one of my favorite wine regions).
My favorite wine of the evening came from the Southern end of the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. It was a stow-shopper, especially when considering the price when compared to some of the fine white Burgundy that it might be mistaken for during a blind tasting. A complex, exotic and highly perfumed nose of apple, peaches, pears and subtle smokiness revealed a superbly balanced and full-bodied behemoth of soft fruitiness, honey, cream, a touch of spice and a vibrant streak of minerality. This was wonderful stuff, and while not cheap at £15.50 a glass at BB, you can get a bottle at under £25 retail. Highly recommended.
Many people have probably not heard of the area around Rasteau in South-eastern France (the Provence-Alpes-Côte- d’Azur region)…either had I…but this wine will make you stand up and take notice. The Charavin family are well-known in the region and Didier took over the domain in 1985. They make three cuvées and the Prestíge draws upon Syrah (30-40%) and old vine Grenache for the rest, being aged for 6-9 months in demi-muids. It is certainly a full-on wine, similar in many ways to a powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it needs a strong dish to bring out its best. A melange of gamey notes, lots of dark fruit, and maybe a bit of leather, it was very round and hugely satisfying. Not one to sip on its own, but when paired with a hearty stew or meaty dish, it is a special wine. It goes for £32.50 a bottle at BB, but I’d be surprised if it cost much more than £15-17 retail (if you can find it).
Toward the end of the meal, a pair of whites emerged. The charming Vermentino was a good example of the grape, and produced baskets of exotic fruits and bouquets of fresh flowers in my mind. I had a few glasses of that, and found it more intriguing than the perfectly acceptable but not particularly memorable Grüner pictured above.
As a side note, another wine I really enjoyed during the meal, but forgot to photograph, was the 2007 Benoit Cantin from Irancy in France, which was crafted from 100% Pinot Noir. I have had a few other Pinots from the same appellation and not been overly impressed, but this was a beauty. A somewhat typical nose of cherries and berries, what sticks out in my mind was the elegant and soft tannins and the depth of the cherry flavour. It had a nice finish too, not all that long, but refreshing. It sells for £10/glass at BB, but if buying retail by 6-bottle case, it goes for about £16/bottle, which is good value indeed.
Lastly, as we dusted off the desserts, David brought a nice alternative of a sweet wine out for us to try. Actually it wasn’t wine, per se, but an ice cider (cidre de glace) from Quebec. It was new to me, but it was a wonderful idea, and would complement any dessert with apple or pear very nicely – it was perfectly balanced with great hit of acidity to balance the sweetness of the dominant apple flavor.
Perfectly Fine to Wine and Dine
My overall experience at BB was a positive one. There were no real duds in terms of the food (and we had a lot of it), although I don’t think the aioli would be worth ordering. As already mentioned, the charcuterie was as fine as I’ve had in London and the burgers were prepared with good ingredients, cooked well and tasted like…well…proper burgers. I thought the sea bass was fantastic, and would order it again. Aside from some of the desserts, many of which sounded and looked better than they tasted, the kitchen showed a very good pedigree and potential.
Of course, I was sitting with a group of chatty and friendly bloggers, and the restaurant did sort of pander to us throughout most of the meal. Plus we didn’t pay a penny. So I can’t vouch for the experience you would have if you came as a couple or small group for dinner at BB, but my guess is you’d like a lot of it, and that the service would be pretty polished. But eating out is a subjective thing, and a lot of it can depend on the day.
It’s a weird thing: while I really enjoyed it at BB, I haven’t felt a strong urge to return since – nothing against them, probably just more to do with my food cravings at the moment, or possibly the fact that we pretty much ate the entire menu so there are no surprises left (?) – although I would certainly drop by to see what magnum they were serving by the glass, and maybe munch on some sort of meaty number(s) to keep me sober.
I also found it personally amusing that DB had decided to come to London at around the same time I had decided to move back to New York – I hope that both of us have chosen the right place at the right time. At the worst, BB can serve as spillover for those who can’t eat ‘Dinner’ with Heston from the beginning of December (according to the good folks at the MO), and he does have all those well-heeled hotel guests, so I would guess that BB will be around for a while.
Finally, I found it odd that the B-room at BB was completely stark – all white, no red (and certainly no blue). What a contrast to the burgundy-themed restaurant. I don’t mention it for any other reason that I took a photo of it and thought it odd while perusing the shots I took from the evening. So there.
PS – last random bit of info – in the middle of our meal, the former MP and PM, MT, walked into BB with an entourage of about three. I guess right now, this is somehow the place to B.
*Note: I have been to Bar Boulud in London once, it was for dinner, and I was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (and thus didn’t pay anything toward the bill).*