BISTROT BRUNO LOUBET: TEXTBOOK
Don’t call it a comeback.
Bruno Loubet may well have been away from the capital for the best part of the last decade, but it is not like all he was doing was laying on a beach while he was in Brisbane. It was obvious from last night’s meals that he has returned to London with all his considerable skills in the kitchen very much intact.
Hermano Primero and I have quite a history with Bruno Loubet. L’Hippocampe (where Arbutus now stands) was the first place where HP ever dropped £100 on a meal in the early 1990’s. L’Odeon, one of the great gastrodomes that were all the rage fifteen years ago, was one of the first places I did the same. We both liked his brief foray into Moroccan food at Bruno Soho and his presence in the kitchens during the opening weeks of Isola’s existence even persuaded us to visit a gaff run by Oliver Peyton, our least favourite restauranteur in London.
Things were obviously not right as we approached the Millennium, however and HP’s last sighting of Bruno was disconsolately sucking on a cigarette outside of Mash, another Peyton joint just after the turn of the new century. He disappeared soon after and we assumed that his skills had been lost to consultancy and private dining in the way that so many good chefs of the time had gone (think David Cavalier)
When I found out, later on that he had opened up a series of restaurants down under in Brisbane to great acclaim, I assumed that he had decided to leave the capricious world of London dining behind for good. So, it was a surprise when rumours of his return began to appear on Twitter and even more of a surprise when they turned out to be true.
The Zetter Hotel, home of the former football pools company, may seem like an unlikely venue for a star chef to make his return, but they have done a great job with the room. I found HP already examining the menu at a table to the rear of the restaurant when I arrived and one glimpse reassured me that any fears of Loubet bringing back packets of galangal and lemongrass with him from Australia were unfounded.
The menu is supposed to present a modern, lighter take on Loubet’s bistro cooking, but appeared pretty much as we remembered and once the waiter announced that there was a starter of Scallops with Black Pudding (one of his signature dishes back in the 1990’s) the whole evening felt like putting on the most comfortable pair of slippers.
Our first tastes of our starters reminded us why we had always been such big fans. HP’s “Mauricette Snails and meatballs with royal de champignons” was Bruno’s cheffy take on a favourite dish of his mothers. Everything about it was, to use a word that HP repeated throughout the evening “textbook” with meaty snails, delicate veal meatballs and a tomato sauce that exuded sweetness. My own guinea fowl boudin blanc was even better, perhaps showing the new approach, with a feather light sausage of an almost mousse like texture sitting in a light broth studded with carrots, ham and barley flavoured with the addition of chervil.
I could easily have ordered every main course dish, but chose the veal dish of the day, which was a piece of rolled breast, served with gnocchi and leeks. HP went for the already much lauded dish of Hare Royale with onion raviolo and a puree of pumpkin and dried mandarin. Both dishes showed a richness that might well be considered unfashionable today, but although both were unapologetically full on, they were pitch perfect with no sign of the fierce reduction that seems to be the blight on so many meat dishes in high end places. The hare shredded perfectly to release its gamey steam, while the veal broke apart with just a touch of the knife.
The gnocchi were light, but retained a bite and the pumpkin purree with mandarin complimented the hare sauce in the same way a daube benefits from having a slice of orange peel as it cooks. HP said it again, as he spooned a blob of perfect potato dauphinoise from bowl to mouth “textbook”
Neither of us could recall what desserts were like at Loubet’s previous restaurants, which probably says more about our ambivalence than their quality. Here, almost inevitably, HP went for a selection of ice cream while I chose a chocolate tartlet with caramel and salted butter ice cream. The ice creams were disappointing with only a small scoop of morello cherry flavoured deemed worthy of him finishing. But, the tart was spot on, the casing cracking under the pressure of my spoon and the inside served slightly warm so the chocolate oozed out onto the plate.
With some coffee and fresh mint tea, it made a lovely end to a lovely meal and one that with a bottle of something punchy from the Laungedoc came to £117 including service. That seemed like a fair amount for three courses of excellent cooking by one of our all time favourite chefs, particularly when put in context of some of the more dispiriting experiences we have had recently.
It would be easy to go overboard with Loubet’s return to London particularly as he is obviously still cooking with considerable enthusiasm and producing dishes of the highest level. There should be more places in London like this, but then again there should be more chefs in London like Bruno Loubet.
A very welcome return indeed.