Christmas holidays of course. This is the time of year where it’s often difficult to find that special meal. Either the restaurant you want is fully booked, or it’s just doing a boring and overpriced Christmas Menu or it’s closed for the holidays. However over the last few years we have found that if you look carefully and book with enough advance notice you can still find some gems around the Christmas season.
This year we have chosen two very different but highly acclaimed restaurants that we have not visited yet :-
To the uninitiated a visit to Bob Bob Ricard in Soho is a bit like walking into one of those Carlsberg adverts, you know the ones about the Flat, the Hotel and the Bank. Well BBR is a Diner and if Carlsberg did Diners this would be it.
It’s all booths. But instead of the Chrome, Plastic and Formica you’d expect its all Brass, Leather and Marble. The menu includes quite a bit of “Diner” type food and drink – Burgers, Ice Cream Sundaes, Milkshakes and Lemonade etc, along with some more extravagant items, like the selection of Caviar and the Beef Wellington with Truffle gravy. The impression we had was that BBR could have been the dream of a child of Soviet Russia imagining the glamour of an American Diner. It’s completely OTT, but in a good way (I have since discovered it’s actual design is based on an Edwardian Train – Time Out described the design as “working within a loose theme of Orient Express meets American diner”, which sounds about right to me).
We had a fairly mixed selection of dishes. We started with the Herring, Egg and Beetroot salad which was delicious and the Eggs Benedict. Then I had the Poached Salmon with Cucumber, Dill and Mustard along with a side order of New Potatoes. My companion went down the “Diner” route by ordering a Cheese Burger & Fries complete with a Kraft Cheese slice topping (not the best Burger he’d had, after all we have been to Bar Boulud, but it was fine). I finished by indulging my sweet tooth and ordered the plate of BBR cakes. A small section of cakes that also forms the top layer of the Afternoon Tea cake stand and my companion ordered some ice cream. Peanut Butter and Banana, Salted Caramel (one he would not recommend unless you like it very salty) and Valrhona Chocolate.
We accompanied all of this with Champagne of course. Bob Bob Ricard does have the famous Champagne button after all (although on our visit the restaurant was not busy and the service was efficient enough not to need it). The nicely chilled glasses of Pol Roger Champagne certainly succeeded in pushing our bill up beyond “Diner” prices though.
Our visit was during a quiet lunch time and I have to admit I would like to have seen the place in full swing in the evening, although I suspect that would seriously damage my bank balance. That Champagne button is a dangerous thing!
Located in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge is Daniel Boulud’s London outpost Bar Boulud. I had lunch there just after it opened – see post Bar Boulud – Busy! Buzzy!Burgers! I enjoyed it on that visit and certainly thought about returning to try more from the Bistro inspired menu. It’s amazing to think that was over 18 months ago and I am only now returning, this time as part of a larger group.
This visit was for lunch on a Saturday and we experienced a much less frantic environment than I remember. The ambience was actually very relaxing.
I choose from the excellent value fixed price lunch menu – seriously good value at £23 for 3 courses. I started with a lovely creamy and tasty pumpkin soup, followed by a very tender lamb shoulder dish served with baby carrots, eggplant, almonds and apricots and finished with a quite stunning chestnut sable & mousse covered in a lovely shiny chocolate glaze served with some light and refreshing pear sorbet.
My companions were visiting Bar Boulud for the first time and quite rightly ordered the burgers. The Yankee and the Frenchie being the most popular choice. The best burgers in London was the general consensus there – great fries too.
The other dessert pictured is the gâteau noisette et poire – hazelnut mousse with caramelized pears and caramel ice cream. It was a stunner.
I tried very hard to resist the allure of the Mandarin Bar without success. My intentions for having a reasonably priced lunch were dashed by the pricey but delicious cocktails. The pictured cocktail is a Lychee Martini, the cocktail menu also had some delightfully named cocktails like the Orient Expresso and the Ginny Henricks.
I am sure I will return to Bar Boulud again in the not too distant future. It’s such a good refuge from the hustle and bustle of Knightsbridge.
UPDATE : December 2012, returned for the good value set lunch menu (which unfortunately does not include the famous burgers). Same high standard of food and service. The tables are very close together, so you will find it hard to avoid a bit of people watching, we witnessed a couple of incidents where the staff were working hard handling some of the very demanding customers that frequent Bar Boulud.
The new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental may seat 140 guests, but getting one of these seats is not easy. We reserved our table in January not long after the booking lines had opened and got the earliest table available, which was a 2.30 lunch sitting in March. This meant we had been looking forward to “Dinner” for what seemed like ages. Could it possibly live up to the hype or more importantly to my mind could it justify the loss of The Foliage?
Interestingly there does seem to be a restaurant review pattern, in that the food bloggers are less wowed than the professional critics. A pattern I am afraid we find ourselves following. To be fair Heston in interviews has emphasised that Dinner is not trying to be a fine dining restaurant, it is not an outpost of The Fat Duck. The staff also made that very clear to us on our visit. So we tried hard to adjust our expectations accordingly.
During the summer months the terrace overlooking Hyde Park will be used for al fresco dining and it may well take until the summer to get a reservation. The Restaurant is apparently fully booked to the end of June. Reservations are even being offered as prizes and being sold on ebay!
It was really nice to be greeted by the last two surviving members of the Foliage staff. As a welcoming treat we were given a sample of the famous Meat Fruit, enabling us to effectively “tick the box” on that one. It was a perfectly fine chicken liver parfait cleverly shaped like a Mandarin Orange in homage to the hotel. I then ordered the Hay Smoked Mackerel starter with lemon salad, Gentlemen’s Relish and olive oil. I found it to be a tasty and refreshing dish. For main course I chose the Pigeon, which was delicious, but in retrospect did not really justify the price which was actually more than the cost of the entire set menu. The standout dish for me was my dessert choice – no not the famous Tipsy cake with pineapple. I was a bit more adventurous. I went for the Brown Bread Ice-Cream, even though I had been warned and perhaps a little put off by it being described as having savoury elements. It was unusual, but for me it really worked with the yeasty Ice-Cream contrasting well with the caramel sauce and oats. I found it really quite moreish.
My companion was less successful with his choices. He started with the Rice and Flesh which combined flavours that he did not particularly enjoy. He also ordered the Powdered duck. The meat was moist with subtle flavours but he did not like the contrasting hard fennel. On the whole he felt that the historically inspired flavour combinations were a bit incongruous, sadly reminiscent of the cooking style at Oliver Peytons National Dining Room.
He then had what he described as the “Krispy Kreme” doughnut like Tipsy cake with spit roasted pineapple. The Tipsy cake was OK but the smoky after taste from the pineapple chunks was less successful.
We finished the meal on a “high” note though with a small cup of Earl Grey ganache and some caraway biscuits. This was rather playful in that it conjured up the taste of accidentally picking up and drinking a long discarded cup of cold tea – until the sugar rush kicked in! This sweet treat seemed to be closer in concept to the type of food served at The Fat Duck than to Dinners historically inspired menu.
The restaurant with its £4 million make over looks good, but not stunning. With that sort of money I expected this flag ship restaurant to have the same level of glamour as achieved by Moments at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona for example.
It was also strange to find ourselves seated at the same table location as we had during our memorable last meal at the Foliage. Maybe it was just a coincidence or perhaps it was intentional, indicating the level of customer care the Mandarin is famous for.
After our late lunch we met up with some friends in the adjoining Mandarin bar for a quick drink that lasted about 6 hours! The cocktails were on the whole really enjoyable, served by the super efficient staff. One annoyance was that they no longer offer bar food, just the room service menu if you are a resident. I suspect this is a side effect of losing the The Park Restaurant.
So in conclusion I have to say unfortunately Dinner is not somewhere that I would rush to return too. Indeed if in Knightsbridge, I would be more likely to make a return visit to Koffmans or perhaps even Bar Boulud. We have no doubt that these changes will bring financial and critical success to the Mandarin Oriental and certainly getting Heston to open his first London Restaurant here is quite a coup, but from our perspective sadly we feel that the Mandarin has lost more than it has gained.
UPDATE : October 2011 : The 2012 Michelin Guide has unsurprisingly awarded Dinner a star.
The Cross Keys is a historic pub in the heart of Chelsea. It has a couple of lovely rooms that can be hired out and a separate restaurant at the back with a retractable roof to let in the sunshine. We dropped in for Sunday lunch, not realising that the pub had changed ownership earlier this year.
The service itself was a bit patchy, with the bread and one dip arriving first, then a second dip coming just as the main courses arrived. I am pretty sure the rather loud argument we heard from the serving area did not help the ambience!
The bread with fresh pesto dip and olive oil was a good start, but the menu selection was not very exciting, none of the starters grabbed our attention, nor did the desserts. So we ended up just having main courses, specifically the Lamb Cutlets and the Wagyu beef burger with Truffle fries which at £16.00 has to be one of the most expensive burgers I have ever had. The Truffle fries were nice, but the burger was very ordinary, and served with way too much Kos lettuce. At that price I was expecting something a bit more sophisticated, like the “frenchie” burger served at Bar Boulud for example.
So maybe on my next visit I will just stick to drinks and bar snacks and avoid disappointment.
There have been lots of recent reviews about Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental. Most of them hightlighting just how quickly this restaurant found its feet. Certainly on our visit, barely two weeks after opening, it was running very smoothly indeed. Especially when you consider just how busy it was.
The first thing that hits you when you sit down, is the level of service. There are a lot of staff both in the kitchen and in the dining room. It is actually quite entertaining to watch them skillfully almost dance around each other.
This is a great people watching venue. The Tables are very close together and there is an almost frantic buzz of activity and noise when the service is in full swing.
Bar Boulud menu combines French charcuterie and bistro cooking. So to start we shared a small plate of charcuterie. The waiter made a point of explaining that all the Terrines were home made. It was certainly a good varied selection (although not the best charcuterie I have had in London, Almeida does a really good charcuterie trolley which I thought had the edge on the Bar Boulud selection). For the main course we tried the now famous “Frenchie” burger (a great burger almost as good as the one in Moovida – praise indeed) and a more traditional Steak frites. The burger looked small but was perfectly cooked and actually very filling, as was the equally well cooked steak.
For dessert we choose the lightest dish on the menu, a sort of tropical fruit sundae with lovely moist coconut biscuits in it. It seemed to be the most popular dessert.
We ordered a la carte and had some expensive wines so our bill was over £100 for two people, but Bar Boulud can be more reasonable, the set menu for example is £20 for 3 courses.
My only criticism is that it was all a bit frantic…but then that’s what a busy bistro is. So do not expect a quiet lunch.