Sheekey’s always works for Mother Wright – or for the really cosmopolitan among you, of watching les girls at the Crazy Horse on Avenue George V in Paris while nibbling côtelets d’agneau. You’re less likely, I would wager, to envisage feasting on bone marrow and snails before watching a three-piece transgender ‘frockabilly’ band in a converted warehouse in Hackney. But that’s exactly what I experienced last weekend at Bistrotheque, and what an enjoyable experience it was.
When it first opened about five years ago, Bistrotheque was that rarest of entities: something completely new, at least to London. While multi-purpose restaurant and cabaret spaces have been around for centuries, Bistrotheque eschewed the safe formula of mediocre, over-priced food matched with predictable, traditional entertainment and instead founded itself as a space for alternative, challenging performance, with the option of fine dining in its attractive restaurant space.
To add to its uniqueness, Bistrotheque opened in what was then – and to be honest, remains – the middle of nowhere, adopting one can only assume the bold mantra of ‘If we build it, they will come’. Come they did, and still do; Bistrotheque was an instant hit with the fashionable east London crowd and on the Saturday night we visited was doing a roaring trade despite its isolation.
The lure for us – myself, Alyn, Elaine, birthday boy PJ and his husband Michael – was the aforementioned frockabilly band, The Frantastics, fronted by Frances, erstwhile hostess of the temporarily-homeless Club Lola. While it’s perfectly possible to just come for the show (and I would highly recommend that you do come), the chance to make an evening of it and enjoy dinner beforehand was very welcome. I’m glad we did take the chance, because the dining experience was, bar a few glitches, very good.
There’s a choice of two dining rooms, the all-white, vaulted-ceilinged main room and the smaller, more intimate wood-panelled Oak Room. Wanting to celebrate PJ’s big day with some degree of privacy we opted for the latter, and were given a large, attractively dressed table in the centre of the charming candlelit room. The menu – printed, with immense practicality, on one’s place setting – reads appealingly; it’s modern, fashionable bistro fare as you’d expect from a modern, fashionable bistro.
I loved my starter of bone marrow, sautéed snails, frisee and toast, a generous helping of inch-thick cross sections of bone each oozing with rich, butter-soft marrow which paired deliciously with the garlicky snails and bitter leaves. A starter of mixed beetroot salad, herbs, orange and horseradish, chosen by all of the rest of the table, divided opinion. While one described it as ‘the perfect starter’, both ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and ‘soothing’ (sorry to go all Zagat on you here with the inverted commas, but I’m quoting from an email), another found the dish to be short on flavour and overly dry, ‘similar to eating a prettily coloured piece of card’.
Mains were universally liked. My steak tartare with chips and green salad was excellent, although the salad had to be replaced as it was so over-salted as to be inedible (who on Earth salts salad? I wondered). Alyn’s half roast chicken with garlic and wild rocket was a simple success, the meat moist, succulent and just fragranced with the garlic. Roast sea bass with creamed leeks, crab, tomatoes and gremolata was pronounced ‘simply delicious’ by PJ, and the two vegetarians at the table highly praised the fennel and oregano gratin, baked flat mushrooms and Taleggio. There’s clearly an expert touch being deployed in the kitchen, the subtle layering of textures and flavours in every dish showing both skill and imagination.
It being a birthday there had of course to be cake, and I had pre-arranged a chocolate and raspberry one which was brought to the table with the candles and fanfare requisite of such occasions. Once the candles had been blown out it was taken away and, at no extra charge, re-plated as individual portions with some excellent vanilla ice-cream. I thought this showed great generosity on the venue’s part, and was a real highlight of the meal. We tried additionally a fruit crumble and crème brulée, both of which were tooth-janglingly over-sweet; viz the green salad, somewhere among the commis chefs there’s a heavy-handedness which needs addressing.
Drinks were all pink; we started off with a bottle or two of a lovely light Prosecco rosé, before moving on to a 2008 Cotes de Provence, Domaine Gavoty Melopée which proved a successful match for our many and varied food choices. The wine list is strong, mostly French, and like the food ungreedily-priced. Tap water was offered and constantly replenished, earning extra brownie points. Service throughout was delightful, with special mention going to restaurant manager Jason who accommodated my extremely demanding table requirements and miscellaneous enquiries with charm and enthusiasm.
The bill, for three courses, lakes of good wine and 12.5% optional service which we were very glad to pay, came to about £60 a head; with less wine than we put away and sans the birthday cake you could get away for much less. That figure also included our entrance to the show, which for the record was just fabulous. Frances, Lauren and Jenny - the fantastic Frantastics – entertained us and a packed room with a foot-stomping, barn-storming set of covers and original material, including the oh-so-contemporary ‘I Fell In Love In A Chatroom’ – check it out on the Frantastics' website.
Michelin – an infinitely more respectable and reliable restaurant guide than this - says of its highest-scoring three star restaurants that they are worth not just a detour, but the journey itself. Given Bistrotheque’s location, you have little choice but to make a special journey, not to mention a few detours, to get there, but while I’m not sure it’s quite the sort of place I’ll be bringing Mother Wright in a hurry, I’ll certainly be making the journey again before too long.
Bistrotheque, 23-27 Wadeson Street, London, E2 9DR. Tel: 020 8983 7900 http://www.bistrotheque.com