Sunday 23 May 2010

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Late last Wednesday, when I got home from dinner at the recently opened Bar Boulud, I tweeted: "So underwhelmed by Bar Boulud that I'll need a serious mainline fix from my enthusiasm dealer before I can even think about writing it up." This was no exaggeration; bar the ever-effervescent and aesthetically-delightful company of my strapping Welsh pal Will, my evening at New York superchef Daniel Boulud's new 'informal' restaurant had delivered so little to be excited about that I genuinely wondered if I would ever be sufficiently arsed to put fingertips to keyboard. I certainly couldn't be bothered to take any photos hence this post being illustrated with my favourite picture of Will from our trip to Madrid last year.

To preface, particularly for those who don't follow restaurant and catering news with the slavish devotion of the blogosphere and Twitterati, 2010 is to be the year of the superchef hotel restaurant. Riding the crest of a wave which started last year with the arrival (albeit in name only) of Heinz Beck at
Apsleys, 2010 has already seen Bruno Loubet launch his insanely successful eponymous Bistro at The Zetter and, just a few weeks ago, the opening of Bar Boulud, the London off-shoot of thrice-Michelin-starred Daniel Boulud's New York gaff of the same name. Treats still to come include Heston Bloomineck's first London restaurant (which like Bar Boulud will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park) and perhaps most excitingly of all, Pierre Koffmann's return to The Berkeley. By Autumn you'll be hard pressed to find a fine diner in the capital which doesn't have a three-star chef's name above the door.

You'd expect then that with a big-name chef patron, a five-star-deluxe location and a track record of success in the bear pit which is the NYC restaurant trade, Bar Boulud would be something pretty bloody special. Alas, your expectations would be for naught, because the actual product is pretty mediocre. 

First - and worst - of all, there's the quite spectacularly unattractive room. The floor, chairs, tables, bar and panelling are all made of the same harsh, hard wood in the same harsh, hard shade. There are accents here and there of a deep terracotta-ish red, offset by rendered walls painted the colour familiar to tenants everywhere as 'landlord beige' and adorned with bought-in-bulk generic black and white photography. The overall effect, I put it to Will, was of the breakfast room in a Thistle hotel; Will, who was a high-up with the chain for eight long years, concurred. I provide here an interior shot of the Thistle Hotel Cheltenham as my Exhibit A and invite anyone who has been or might go to Bar Boulud to spot the difference

Menu-wise, Bar Boulud offers a wide and appealingly described range of brasserie fare; a long-ish list of charcuterie options is joined by a selection of sausages, soups and salads in portions geared towards sharing. If you're after something more substantial there are burgers (apparently a Boulud speciality) and 'plats de resistance', a rather grand name for fish and meat main courses which include classics like coq au vin and steak frites. So far, so Cafe Rouge.

While deciding what to have we sampled a couple of cocktails, neither of which bowled us over. My Negroni was insipid - too much sweet vermouth possibly - and Will's Cosmopolitan (Who dear? Gay dear? Us dear?) was just silly, poured at the table from a miniature pitcher, into a cocktail glass containing a giant ice ball, in which were encased rose petals which perfumed the drink as the ice melted. Sometimes cocktail theatre can be fun, sometimes it's just naff; the latter was the case here, made worse by the fact that rose petals have no place in a Cosmopolitan.

We ordered a selection of dishes to share, a small charcuterie platter, a tourte de canard (duck terrine in pastry), boudin blanc with truffle mash and cervelas de Lyon, one of the day's specials described as pork sausage baked in brioche - I envisioned a high-end pork pie. Additionally I ordered chilled pea soup with baby carrot for no better reason than that I love chilled soups.

The charcuterie is made in-house to specifications laid down by Parisian master charcutier Gilles Verot and I thought it rather grand that rather than have the charcuterie bought in, Boulud had had a charcutier brought in. Particularly enjoyable on the platter were slow-cooked beef cheek which had an intense, almost curried flavour and a terrine of pulled (sort of braised) rabbit. Accompanying pickles were lively and piquant. Less impressive were the various hams and meats, which were indistinguishable from anything one could buy in a half-decent deli.

Our tourte de canard was very good, layering gutsy pressed duck, abundant nuggets of goose foie gras (their foie gras is all goose - I checked) and sticky, squishy figs, the whole encased in a deliciously sweet, glazed pastry. Boudin blanc was also a pleaser, the sausage's delicate smoothness of texture belying its concentrated pork flavour; the truffle mash it nestled on was rich, buttery and utterly luxurious. My chilled pea soup, listed as also incorporating rosemary cream, did not taste of the herb at all but was tasty and primaveral, providing a welcome cleansing contrast to the salinity of the charcuterie. The worst dish by far was the
cervelas de Lyon which consisted of dense sausage-meat - "Is this Spam?" I wondered more than once - within claggy, dry brioche which stuck in the throat. Removing  the bread rendered it barely more edible.

Although we were fairly full, we decided not to order desserts less from being full than for lack of any interest. A combination of the ugly room and far too formal service - from far too many staff - had made it impossible to relax all the time we were there and we just wanted to get the hell out. Our bill, including a glass of wine each (Will's a Sancerre, mine a lovely, light Irancy, at about a tenner apiece) and 12.5% service came to £104 which we both clutched our pearls at; individual plate prices don't raise eyebrows in isolation but boy do they add up. As we left, Daniel Boulud himself was working the room, but neither he nor any of his copious staff felt it necessary to thank us or wish us goodbye.

I'd struggle to recommend anything about Bar Boulud though damn it I have been racking my brains to try. Sure there's the good quality of the charcuterie but anywhere can sell someone else's established product. Otherwise I really don't see anything special about Bar Boulud to make up for the awful design, the dull stiffness of the ambience and the 'so what?' OK-ness of the food offering.

Perhaps it will make a nice breakfast room.

Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA Tel: 020 7201 3899 

Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon


  1. Oh dear, what a shame. Let's see what Heston brings to the party.

  2. Love the "what the...?" photo - we have a of whole collection of them taken at various overrated sites on our travels (such as the Daylesford Springs/Trickle - but I digress). I am thoroughly shocked (to the point of commenting before 7am and even pre-caffeine) that we had such different experiences of B. Boulud. I even quite liked the room, but can see how it could go either way - I probably would have hated the room had I not liked everything else so much. The desserts were the worst part of our meal so I am disappointed, from an entertainment perspective, that you opted out of those. The thought of the rose petals on the Cosmo makes up for it, however.

  3. Oh dear, indeed! Will reserve my judgement until next week, but there's no excuse for an insipid negroni! Glad to hear the city has more effervescent, aesthetically-delightful and strapping Welshmen to accompany you though!

  4. Oh teats and balls. Sorry you had a bad one. I thought it was good. Agree on the charcuterie front - terrines tip top but the hams were utterly meh. But I then had just about the best piece of sea bass I've e'er eaten. Truly stellar. Martinis were good too. Hic.

    Chilled soups - cracking vichyssoise at the Drapers Arms in Islington. Ever so slightly too thick but totally delicious.

  5. An insipid Negroni? How did they manage that?! There is so much hype about this place lately, I have been meaning to go but haven't quite found the time yet. The duck dish sounds amazing though and I will make sure to order it if I get to book in future.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  6. Love it. Spot on. It hasn't improved. Bland-o-rama. Still too many (fairly useless) staff.


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