LE BOUCHON BRETON: A TALE OF TWO OPENINGS
DH have topped and tailed this week’s eating adventures with two new openings.
Of the first, York & Albany, we expected great things. Angela Hartnett was in the kitchen and, although no one claimed this was going to be another Murano, where we had a good experience recently, she can usually be relied upon to send out a solid meal.
Of the other, Bouchon Breton, we expected little even though the menu had been constructed in consultation with Michel Roux Jr. It was, after all, situated amongst the dross of Spitalfields' chain restaurant dining quarter and is the sister restaurant to Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea, an area of London where you are more likely to find Lord Lucan than a decent meal. Added to which, we have experienced enough faux brasserie meals in our capital to dampen any expectation that this would be any different.
While I can appreciate the notion of letting restaurants bed in for a while before visiting, neither of these two places offered a soft opening and the hubris of charging full whack from day one means that they should be subjected to the same critical examination as if we were to visit in two weeks or indeed two months time.
It says much about the London’s inconsistent dining scene that we came out of both restaurants shaking our heads, but for very different reasons. York & Albany because, quite frankly it crashed and burned delivering a bewilderingly average meal, Bouchon Breton because, despite everything stacked against it, it proved to be the real deal and one of the better DH experiences since my return to the UK.
It didn’t start well. As we moved to the cavernous dining area, the only diners in the restaurant, the staff decided that we should be treated to the traditional Gallic sounds of Gloria Estephan & The Miami Sound Machine at full blast. The Maitre D’ shook his head and in pure comedy French muttered “They want Saturday Night Fever and it is only Friday” before running off and making them change it for the more appropriate sounds of Serge Gainsbourg talking about shagging.
The menu reads like a dream for any Fracophile and even for me who isn't and thinks that Paris is a dreadful, ossified chocolate box of a city. But, none of that would matter if, as is so often the case, the cooking is lousy. The taste of some excellent butter with simple baguette gave a clue that they might give a damn. So too did the fact that they took the time to present three meaty Belon oysters, which HP chose as a little pre-appetizer, with the same care as they would a dozen.
Our starters were brought in two courses, another nice touch, so we could share more easily and the arrival of a plate of frogs’ legs covered in a crisp, feather light batter told us that, while the chef in the kitchen may not be a celebrity name (formerly of Le Gavroche, I believe) , he certainly knew what he was doing. Accompanying the legs was a small pile of equally dainty sweet onion rings and a terrific tartar sauce.
We were still cleaning the batter crumbs from the plate with licked fingers when they came to take it away and replace it with a platter of Burgundian snails in their shells, which had been stuffed with parsley, garlic and enough butter to leak out into pools on the plate. I had forgotten just how good a dish this is when done well and both HP and I ate in silence as we pulled the snails from their shell and then mopped up the juices with more bread. The sort of dish that makes you realise why you fell in love with food.
As indeed was the main event, which of course, the moment our eyes lit on the words “Cote De Boeuf” was never going to be anything else. 28 day aged and from a range of Angus, Limousin or Charolais cattle, the 1kg steak comes in at a hefty £45 for two but is worth splashing out the cash for. Perfectly prepared, rare as requested, and carved at the table by the Maitre D’ the juices leaked pleasingly over the wooden board on which it was served. What’s more, it smelled and tasted of beef, a feat that York & Albany singularly failed to achieve earlier in the week when their own attempt at steak was napped in a bog standard El Gordo veal reduction so you could taste nothing else. This was seriously good steak and with it came a well made salad, a huge sauce bowl of béarnaise and a barrel load of excellent, crispy frites. Steak frites done properly. It could catch on.
Desserts were always going to be an anti-climax after that and they didn’t let us down. We left a good looking cheese board well alone and went for a perfunctory selection of ice cream for HP and, for me, a Dame Blanche, named after the three act opera, which brought together chocolate sauce, chantilly cream and ice cream to no great ovation.
I suspect that Bouchon Breton is the only restaurant in Spitalfields with a sommelier, also formerly of Le Gavroche, and he earns his corn carrying around a weighty list with bottles priced well into the hundreds to attract city types with any money left. They could do with a few more entry priced bottles, for rubes like us, but a bottle of Buzet at £27 was presented with as much care as if we had raided their stash of Petrus.
That and two glasses of white with our starters brought our bill to a not inconsiderable £130 including service, but unlike a similar amount at York & Albany, I don’t begrudge a penny of it for a food and service that shows what a place can do on opening if it sets its mind to it.
The question at York & Albany is, can it get any better particularly when Angela Hartnett scurries back to Murano in search of her star? The question about Bouchon Breton is can it keep up these standards? I am pretty sure I know the answer to both of those questions.