At the time of writing, Claude Bosi’s Bibendum enjoys 9th place in the 2018 Good Food Guide rankings. There was previously a general consensus that, in spite of the stunning exterior of its premises, Bibendum’s allure waned following the early Conran years. So, what has Chef Bosi brought to the restaurant to vivify those glory days and, moreover, leapfrog (no pun intended) a number of his London-based contemporaries in this last year?
The first ingredient in Bosi’s success must surely lie in his imagination, displayed in the carousel of quasi-scientific amuse bouches that open the proceedings at Bibendum. Beaming, can’t-do-enough-for-you staff members deliver and remove little pre-starters as I imagine the servants of a Sheikh would service their employer (more on this later). The first of those on the night I dined was a faux olive, delivered aboard a little olive tree in the style of El Celler‘s infamous banzai course. The “olive” – black and shiny as a pebble – was effectively a thin casing of solidified cocoa butter that, when bitten, cracked and dissolved to reveal a fluid filling of anchovy, olive oil and garlic. It was as enjoyable as it was unusual. There is entertainment in the trick played on the senses.
The olive was followed by a mocked-up boiled egg with its crown lopped off. Inside lay a tasty, coconut foam with unctuous sweetcorn purée acting as the yolk. A second hoax and a talking point when dining in a group. I think Bosi is right to deploy these cheffy micro-dishes free of charge and before proceedings. Why? Well, (1) the hunger edge is removed promptly after seating, leaving diners sufficiently sated to settle into their conservation and drinks; (2) if Bosi wants to show off a little, best that the exhibition of flair be served up gratis. That way a consumer can only either be impressed or shrug their shoulders with confusion. There is no room for disappointment per se.
A few words on the partial refurb at Bibendum is worthwhile. The stained glass windows, with their Michelin man cartoons stencilled into them, remain in situ and are as awe-inspiring as they were 10 years ago. The furniture now comprises plush, silver-teal fabrics, the tones of which move and shimmer when brushed, and the tables are more spaced than previously (probably with the loss of about 5 covers). The improvements are welcome. One minor downer is the carpet throughout the main dining space. It remains royal blue and in turn juxtaposed uncomfortably against the near-green dining chairs.
Something that was not at all tired was the spirit of the male sommelier on shift during my meal – all bouncy and Tigger-like, he was eager and chatty. He attempted to influence my wine choice but I’d already nominated a mid-priced, 2008 Barolo. Note: mid-priced at Bibendum is £75, which is simultaneously quite expensive and wholly expected of a restaurant in an SW3 postcode. The list is good and long, with semi-affordable wines from all around the world. Many of the wines are seriously expensive and only in the reach of certain diners … And, looking around the room at the post-cosmetic surgery faces that evening, I’m adamant that there were some of those in attendance.
Bosi’s innovation is well-executed, while the basics are still fully demonstrated
The à la carte menu is of about the right depth, with five starters and seven mains. The restaurant charges a rack rate of £85 for three courses – far from cheap, but at least creating a cap on cost. A starter of scallops was above average, but not memorable. Bosi paired them with a strawberry sauce vierge, which was quite strange and yet less wild on the taste buds than the description would suggest.
Reminiscent of Palate’s outing to Mere earlier this year, the main course was a step up from the entrée. Brittany rabbit (various cuts of it adorning the plate) with langoustines was a total success. To my surprise, the portion was generous, with the rabbit morsels and shellfish decorating the expanse of the large dinner plate. The meat was tongue-grippingly savoury with a deep, roasted flavour. The langoustine tails were cooked to perfection and, while new to me as a rabbit pairing, really worked with the course’s counterparts. These days, in a world of nouvelle cuisine portions, I place significant emphasis on size (size matters). I have to eat a meal that fills my yearning belly. My hunger and wallet are then treated fairly. I’m pleased to report that, with the procession of amuse bouches and the amount of rabbit within my main course, Bosi is not mistreating his customers (and, let’s face it, with his reputation and the restaurant’s location, he probably could get away with a greater degree of urine extraction).
Some hours later, I’d made it to dessert and struggled, unfortunately, to derive gratification from my chosen pudding of griottine vacherin with amaretto ice cream. The griottine element (a pulp of cherries in Kirsch) was visually appealing yet sickly sweet and inelegant. I can take a hit of diabetes-inducing sweetness from other sources – such as salted caramel, honeycomb or peanut butter. But the combo of slightly sour fruit and stacks of sugar just doesn’t do it for me.
I noticed while at Bibendum – perhaps owing to confirmation bias across several London dining experiences this year – that it is another restaurant whose front of house team is constructed of senior men (the maître d’ and sommelier) and an army of beaming young waitresses, all to a uniform dress size 8 and servile in the extreme. Its obviousness can start to feel uncomfortable for any guest who isn’t a male, guffawing millionaire who used to make inappropriate remarks to female flight attendants in the bad old days. The fact that large bill payers are mainly rich men is, in my view, no reason to copy a (sadly) successful format. Repeating a practice does not legitimise the construct it supports. This is not, of course, Chef Bosi’s fault. Neither am I saying that he is the author of a long-standing problem (that would be daft), nor am I suggesting that he is sexist. The latter would be implausible given his proximity to Isabelle Legeron, who oversees the compilation of Bibendum’s wine list. I’ve simply elected to raise my thoughts here, prompted as they were by my experience. The fact is, Bibendum seems to subscribe to the visible setup I keep witnessing, with its managerial men in suits and twenty-something waitresses in skirts, fussing over their many male customers. These anachronistic recruitment and tertiary practices bear out in so many London venues (including cafes and smaller haunts in the City) that it is now impossible to ignore the issue. Nothing exciting or “naughty” should lie in the lipstick-daubed smile of a very young woman whose wages are paid indirectly by the recipient of the smile. Sometimes, the whole thought of it makes me want to take a sabbatical from eating in the capital.
The place achieved by Bibendum in the Good Food Guide rankings provides evidence of its gastronomic merits. Bosi’s innovation is well-executed, while the basics are still fully demonstrated. Many will consider that a new lease of life has rightly been given to a London institution worthy of preservation. Still, I can’t say that my latest meal at the restaurant conferred a life changing experience, solid though it was. Indeed, in its price bracket, it ought to be impressive.
Bibendum will, I think, continue to be a haven for the wealthy (whether indigenous or passing through). There is a way of enjoying polish and fuss, namely by taking it all with a big pinch of salt. Perhaps that’s how I’m meant to treat the recruitment policies and staff training at so many of London’s eating venues … But I remain sure that an issue requiring consumers’ voices to fix it is growing in this important industry.
81 Fulham Road
by C Ley