Shame about the somewhat uninspiring basement setting – this Knightsbridge outpost of one of New York’s most famous chefs is otherwise a pretty much perfect Gallic brasserie of the type that’s all too rare in London.
For our money, a good Parisian brasserie – offering straightforward food of high quality in a stylish but easy environment – is something near the perfect restaurant concept. As London has been aping Parisian restaurants for at least the past 150 years, it’s amazing how little the formula is successfully imitated here. That may help explain the extraordinary success of The Wolseley – so far as the West End goes, the only institution with a true dash of Montparnasse.
A city, on the other hand, where striking Gallic brasseries do flourish is New York. It doesn’t matter if the most successful of them – most obviously Balthazar – are all pastiches of recent fabrication (and, in many cases, by an Englishman too!). They are, in spirit, true to the original idea. They are also, in our experience, among the most satisfactory all-round places to eat in a city which does not want for quality dining.
It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that it is Daniel Boulud, the most classically-minded of the Big Apple’s triumvirate of multi-starred French chefs, who’s just opened one of the most authentic Gallic brasseries central London has seen in recent memory. (Not that it’s called a brasserie, of course – the term has for some inexplicable reason has become déclassé in both London and New York.)
The original Bar Bould, near Lincoln Center, was described by New York Magazine as the ‘first [Boulud] restaurant explicitly constructed with hoi polloi in mind’, and the Knightsbridge equivalent is, given the location, very much in keeping. Prices are indeed relatively reasonable, all things considered: our not-very-boozy meal for four weighed in around £150. It helps that the wine list starts off reasonably enough, although Boulud’s native Burgundies stretch effortlessly into four figures: if you’ve just bought a Candy-flat next door, you can find a bottle to celebrate with here. There’s also, incidentally, a good range of beers and lagers on tap.
The three course lunch menu (£20) is something of a steal, not least because in includes the opportunity to check out DB’s famous burger, which is indeed very good. Other fare sampled stretched from the excellent to the acceptable. At the forefront in every sense was a platter of Bar Boulud’s trademark charcuterie (and terrines). Other highlights included a specacular croque-monsieur, excellent frites, a perfect pot of spring vegetables, an unctuous béarnaise sauce, and some very tasty mint ice cream. The bread (perhaps wisely in this city, not a baguette) was good too.
In the acceptable camp, plump mussels were not especially improved by being served a l’indienne (or with a nan); a rocket salad came under-dressed; a caramel ice cream served with the chocolate tart du jour was not really sweet enough. But these were details: in the scheme of things, the highlights carried the day. It helped that service, the occasional early-days longeur notwithstanding, was pretty much faultless, striking just the right notes of cordiality and efficiency, and was smart without being at all stuffy.
All pretty much perfect than? Sadly, no. The large dining room is inescapably a basement, It’s never going to match the all-round charms of an Artisanal, Coupole or Wolseley, and might just stop the place becoming the all-round crowd-pleaser which our early visit suggests it could otherwise become.
Indeed, on the setting front, it’s difficult to see how Boulud can avoid being outshone by Heston Blumenthal’s establishment, scheduled to open later in the year at the same hotel but on the ground floor. From what we know at the moment, though, it seems that the culinary formula Heston is to offer – more Hind’s Head than Fat Duck – is not really going to be so very different from Boulud’s. This essential similarity is going to make for a very interesting contest indeed.