This review was published in 2017. Unfortunately this restaurant has now permanently closed.
So far, 2017 has been a tumultuous year on the food front: Oliver Dabbous has closed both Barnyard and his eponymous restaurant, fine dining is reportedly in decline, and to top it all we’re currently in a hummus crisis! But with exciting new openings in Lorne, Mere and Bon Vivant, it isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom.
Some time in the melee of early 2017, Balfour – a cheap and cheerful Italian restaurant opposite Alain de Botton’s School of Life – transmogrified into Bon Vivant. This happened almost overnight and without fanfare. Not even a soft launch. This was one of those blink-and-you-miss-it moments. Italian restaurant one minute, French the next.
I wonder what prompted the volte-face from Italian to French. It may be to capitalise on the luggage-trundling footfall on this thoroughfare to and from the Eurostar, giving hungry travellers either a foretaste or a reminder of France, depending on their direction of travel – but whatever the reason, it appears to have worked. It should benefit from this location, and indeed a French restaurant seems more fitting than its Italian predecessor. With its unique vantage point on the intersection of two busy Bloomsbury streets you can engage in that most Parisian of pastimes: people watching.
A Café Rouge this is not.
In addition to the switch from Italian to French, the venue has had a massive upgrade. I have to say that, in its former guise, it did seem a bit stuck in the 90s. I like what they’ve done with the place: funkier lighting, comfier seating, green marble table tops, better glassware, a little bar area and, for the al fresco diners, the addition of those little round tables which you only see outside pavement cafes in France. My only two issues are that at times the music goes a bit too ‘house’ for my liking, and the lighting in the Tavistock Square side of the restaurant is a shade too bright.
All of the staff wear Breton-style tops with horizontal stripes (apart from the management, who are exempt from the uniform). This gives a sense of both Jules et Jim cheesiness and informality, though I’m glad they drew the line at berets, which would just be silly. Indeed, this is where the French clichés end. A Café Rouge this is not. Overall, from the design of a nicely constructed crowd-pleasing menu, to the fonts and typefaces used, you get the sense that the management are attuned to current trends and tastes – right down to serving bread on a slate, which annoys me but it seems to be de rigeur at the moment. There is a risk of course that these trends will soon be old hat and Bon Vivant will have to reinvent itself again.
Some things will remain timeless though, like the Breton tops. This seems to be the case with the food, which is classic French with some nods to Breton specialities in there too. I tried a straightforward rib eye steak with gratin dauphinois. This was competently cooked, to the correct cuisson with the fat marbling in the rib eye allowing for juiciness and flavour. Perhaps it could’ve been rested for longer but it was up there with any good steak I’ve had in in Paris – which isn’t a massive compliment, it just means it meets expectations. The gratin was lovely – the potatoes soft and delicate, the cream delectable and the garlic timidly sitting at the back of the classroom but answering its name when called out. The green beans were satisfyingly crunchy.
On a second visit (yes, I went back!), the truffled tagliatelle was amazing. Not that French, mind, but what the hell? A hangover from Balfour’s menu perhaps, or a ‘call-back’ as comedians like to call it.
On the dessert front the earl grey crème brûlée passed my brûlée spoon test and the subtle bergamot in the background did not overpower the dessert. On my second visit, I tried the “Breton Tiramisu.” This should really be in inverted commas as this is not really a Tiramisu. This is more of an homage to the Italian classic dessert, made with salted caramel, Breton biscuits and cream. It’s a nice enough dessert, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a Tiramisu, especially with no coffee in it. I needed to order an espresso on the side for the necessary ‘pick me up’ element.
The wine list is fair, with French wines dominating, but it could be more extensive in scope. There are some quirky house cocktails too but a part of me dies inside whenever I see “bottomless Prosecco” on offer for brunch – or even “drunch.” I don’t get all this love for Prosecco. Why not Champagne?
On my first visit the service seemed to be finding its feet somewhat, which is to be expected I suppose. My waiter didn’t know what the ‘bon vivant’ sauce was when I asked. A waiter should be prepared for such questions, particularly on the more static dinner menu. However, on the second visit it was evident that some training had kicked in and the staff were more confident and knowledgeable. At all times they have been very friendly and welcoming, and on each occasion I’ve visited the restaurant has been busy. I’ve heard they will be introducing a cheaper lunchtime menu which will surely keep this busy place even busier – and now that summer is nearly here, those round tables outside will come into their own.
I have high hopes for Bon Vivant.
75-77 Marchmont Street
by J A Smith