In the former King’s Cross wasteland, a notably welcoming (if slightly themey) warehouse-conversion, where Bruno Loubet offers an innovative and thoroughly satisfying vegetable-heavy cuisine of very high quality.
He may be Bordelais by birth – and an absentee Down Under for nearly a decade – but Bruno Loubet is really a London chef through and through. He started off his career at Chelsea’s Tante Claire (for many years London’s number one restaurant), and made a big name of his own in our city’s early-’90s ‘dark ages’. When he was at Park Lane’s Four Seasons hotel, Harden’s (1993) ranked his cooking as ‘among London’s best’.
Since his return to London, he’s for the most part been in partnership with, among others, (the Hon) Mark Sainsbury – one of London’s few hotelier/restaurateurs who, we’re guessing, never needed to work for a living. Perhaps this has helped him take a long-term view: he has only ever been involved with consistent crowd-pleasers – Moro, the Zetter Hotel (home of Bistrot Bruno Loubet)’ and now this new venture in the former King’s Cross wasteland, in the vast former warehouse now housing Central St Martin’s.
Given the dream team behind it, it would be surprising if Grain Store didn’t work, and – on the basis of our visit – it looks as if it should be quite a triumph. So let’s get out of the way the only thing we didn’t really like. It’s difficult to find an aesthetic which really works for these vast urban-barn conversions. If, however, as here, you soften the interior with modern but rather farmhousey tables, and with folksy geegaws such as an old pram turned into a drinks trolley, the slippery slope to theme-restauration beckons – think Jamie’s Italian.
There’s certainly nothing at all themed or gimmicky about the service, though, which combined warmth with efficiency throughout our meal in a way which could serve as a model for this newish type of establishment (and, indeed, most others). It’s the cooking, though, that really makes this place stands out. Loubet may be a name, but the pass of the large open kitchen seems to have been constructed so that he can prominently command it. He was active throughout our meal: even at this relatively advanced stage of a chef’s career (he is over 50), he’s far from being just the ‘face’ of the establishment.
The quality of the food may well be a reflection of this manifest personal involvement. At his Clerkenwell dining room, Loubet is essentially known for classic French dishes with a twist, but here the priority is reversed – there’s a solid backbone of classic technique, but here the emphasis is on novelty’ and vegetables. Those, like us, mystified by London’s steakhouse boom will find plenty of solace here. A dish-of-the-day of pigeon, for example, comes with the meat just a counterpoint to the medley of vegetables among which the flesh is presented. In every way – for taste, for health, for sustainability – this seems to us what with any luck will become some sort of model for the future. And there’s nothing ‘worthy’ about the approach at all – candied tomatoes for dessert make a rather fun strawberry-substitute!
Judged on grounds of sheer taste and interest, this was one of our best meals this year. Indeed, this is the second successful attempt we’ve reviewed in recent times as pulling off the difficult trick of novelty without scaring the horses. Perhaps London’s restaurants really are on a roll.