Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bistro du Vin, Clerkenwell

May 2012 - This restaurant and its sister site in Soho have now closed - they are to become mega-branches of the estimable Burger & Lobster

Asked in a recent interview what makes the perfect restaurant, an eminent and well-loved food writer observed that while good food obviously matters, it's not everything, and that the room, service and atmosphere are just as important. "Very, very few places get the mix exactly right", he sagely added. Although not getting it quite exactly right - yet - Bistro du Vin, the first standalone restaurant from the popular Hotel du Vin chain, is certainly an example of a restaurant that's heading the right way.

On the site of what was once Bjorn van der Horst's hubristic Eastside Inn, Bistro du Vin is the latest big-bucks opening in an area which already boasts, within a few minutes' stroll of each other, culinary genre-definers Bistrot Bruno Loubet, The Modern Pantry, Hix Oyster & Chop House and the daddy of them all, St John. Rather than trying to introduce something modern and fashionable to this already modern and fashionable mix, Bistro du Vin instead offers staunchly traditional bistro grub in stylishly classic surroundings, lubricated by an exciting selection of wines, many by the glass. It does, reassuringly and well, exactly what it says on the tin.
Arriving a little early for our booking, Alyn and I enjoyed a couple of terrific cocktails in the comfy bar; the signature cocktail is a Martini made with Chase Marmalade vodka and it's a tart, refreshing belter, perfect as an aperitif (and as one of your five-a-day and bursting with vitamin C, technically a health drink). When it was time to be seated we were offered the option of perching ourselves at the bar-top which overlooks the open kitchen, but as at that point smoke was billowing out from the nowadays-de-rigueur Josper grill we decided we'd be better off at a corner table in the bustling dining room proper.

From the cohesive, jargon-free menu we chose first some oysters - four natives, four rocks, all Cornish - then a classic starter each, in my case steak tartare and for Alyn, foie gras and chicken liver parfait. The oysters were good, if rather small, and in the case of the natives a little aggressively shucked such that the salty, creamy flesh was broken up on a couple of them. They were delicious though, and unmissable while there's still an 'r' in the month. My steak tartare was fine as a dish in itself but the unexpected and unconventional inclusion of a great whack of English mustard meant that it wasn't my favourite starter as I know and love it. Alyn's parfait was excellent - smooth, rich and luxurious - but if I see another Kilner jar on a restaurant table I'll throw it, and myself, out of a window.

Main courses however were just bloody brilliant, or in the case of Alyn's beautifully rare, 600g bone-in Belton Galloway sirloin, brilliantly bloody. I'm not personally elevated to the same levels of char-worshipping rapture as many appear to be by the work of a Josper grill, but I know good meat cooked well when I taste it and this was it. As of course it should be for £30 with pomme frites - superb ones - another £3.50; smooth, abundantly tarragon-y Béarnaise is complimentary. Even better than this mega-meat feast were my 'Hot Roasted Shells', a great pan of top-notch scallops, razor clams, crab, mussels, langoustines and lobster, simply roasted with just a lick of subtly herbed butter. Delicious and decadent (although not nearly as decadent as at J. Sheekey, where a smaller selection costs £20 more); a crisp mixed salad dressed in fresh vinaigrette was the only accompaniment needed.

We by-passed pudding in favour of a selection of cheese from the very well-stocked chariot we'd spotted on the way in, served with good biscuits, gorgeous saffron honey and on request, a few slices of apple. We were brought - by a very well-informed and passionate waiter - some creamy St Pierre, a classic Roquefort and my very favourite, a stinky, oozing Epoisses, then seconds of salty Valencay and what sounded for all the world like Brazilian but which I think was probably something to do with Bresse. All were terrific, very well-kept and served at peak condition and temperature.

Throughout a long, leisurely meal we enjoyed wines by the glass chosen for us by the preposterously handsome head sommelier Roman  - "like the Empire", as he unforgettably put it - including a floral Grüner Veltliner, Krems with the oysters, a young, refined Craggy Range Pinot Noir and with the cheese, a luscious Lustau, a Pedro Ximenez blend rich with black treacle notes. We finished the evening with a glass of Moscato, as fun, light and effervescent as assistant sommelier Danielle Meenagh - winner of Michel Roux's Service and every bit as dedicated and passionate as she had come across during the televised competition. We'd rooted for her from week one and it was a real pleasure to see her so clearly excelling in a role she evidently loves.

 As is to be expected in a restaurant barely out of its soft launch stage there were a few service glitches, mostly along the lines of empty glasses not being cleared when they needed to be and cutlery being cleared when it didn't, and things being asked for then not brought, but these will be ironed out; the jovial, boyish general manager Mark Jones was eager for feedback and got plenty.

Pricing is fair, and competitive for the area; starters are in the range of £6-£8, mains around £15 and steaks from £13 for onglet up to £43 for a monster 600g Porterhouse which will feed two. There's not much on the wine list under £20 but there's a good selection by the glass. And indeed, 'By The Glass', the name for the Bentley Mulsanne of vending machines which allows the oenologically-inclined to indulge in fine vintages normally available only in bottles - a 55ml glug of Chateau Palmer '96 is on offer for £55 but as Bistro du Vin were kindly picking up the tab on this occasion I selflessly resisted.

Clerkenwell is spoiled for high-end, high-concept restaurants so it will be refreshing for locals and visitors alike that this new opening is, in its very traditional way, breaking the mould. Great food, good service and a pleasant atmosphere  - whoever would think of such a thing?

Bistro du Vin, 38-42 St. John Street, London EC1M 4AY Tel: 020 7490 9230 http://www.bistroduvinandbar.com/ PLEASE NOTE THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon


  1. Making my way over this weekend to try out the steak and what are supposed to be fantastic profiteroles. Lovely review

  2. Great post Hugh, you're spot on with the assessment of Bistro du Vin, they have a great mix of brilliant food, a wonderful atmosphere and a very well-chosen wine selection on offer.

    We are delighted to have one of our By The Glass Wine Preservation Systems in their flagship Bistro, we've already had so much great feedback about it.

    And thanks for the comparison to the Bentley Mulsanne!

  3. That does sound lovely, i'm putting it on my list!


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