Claude Bosi, chef patron of two-starred Bibendum, is one of the UK’s most revered French chefs. Along with business partner Samyuktu Nair, they recently opened Socca in Mayfair to celebrate Bosi’s Provençal roots in what they’ve advertised as a bistro.
The promise of a Bosi bistro was enough to entice me to W1 (urgent overdraft request notwithstanding). The word “bistro” alone conjures images of blackboard menus, partially-melted candles in wine bottles and a convivial atmosphere. Some bistros may even be a little ramshackle or gone to seed but whether old or new they are always authentic and welcoming. There is likely to be a community of regulars, a maître d’ who remembers you and perhaps a chef who emerges from the pass and greets guests. Bistros should leave you sated without breaking the bank, which is an ideal combination as the UK stares down the barrel of another financial crisis.
Sadly, this was the first heart-sinking problem about Socca. I could twist myself into a semantic pretzel defining a bistro but one thing is clear: Socca possesses none of the traits described above. Like Il Borro, the self-styled “Tuscan Bistro” on Berkeley Street, these restaurants aren’t so much born of love but born of boardroom. That’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s shrewd and businesslike to know their tribe (if not their tripe).
Hence, at Socca there is loud French pop music to remind affluent travellers who gravitate to this part of town that it’s a French restaurant (since there aren’t any French staff or guests). There are plump blue cushions to comfort Tories in the death throes of governance. There is plentiful artwork, yes, but one wonders if the carefully acquired paintings are more to provide photogenic intrigue for influencers living off trust funds. The clientele may come for different reasons but all are, let’s face it, in a bubble impervious to the cost of living crisis. They will be untroubled by a puy lentil salad at £16, a rib eye steak at £52, a grilled sole at £66 and desserts all oddly priced at £12 (a typo, I was assured, but still hasn’t been corrected).
Of course, like one of those Batman and Robin face-slapping memes, the VFM Police will exclaim “this is Mayfair you tool!” But at these prices you might as well as fly to Nice or Marseille.
Credit where it’s due, the food at Socca is, for the most part, pleasing. A very wide-ranging menu from Bosi’s mind (but not necessarily his hands) proffers unfussy dishes with high-quality ingredients. Take for instance the Orkney scallops with a blood orange jus and parmesan (£26), served on a huge light blue platter in the shape of scallop shells. These hefty beauties were delicious, with a bitter, acidic zing from the blood orange and an umami sprinkle from the parmesan. Seemingly simple and one of the more generous dishes on the menu.
From Bosi’s “if you know you know” section, I happily scoffed the Provençal beef cheeks with sand carrots (£35), though felt short-changed when the plural “carrots” turned out to be just one (typos on the menu seemed to be a recurring theme in this meal). The beef had been tenderly cooked and was coated in a thick, lip-smacking jus de viande. However, something had gone very wrong with the side of gratin dauphinois (£8): overly dense and flavourless, it was like eating a mouse mat. In retrospect, the shoestring fries with thyme and fleur de sel might have been a better bet.
The Menton tart (£9.50) luxuriously melded onion and olives and was served traditionally sans anchovies, while marinated lamb chops and a sort of babaganoush (£52) complemented each other well.
On the dessert front, a tarte fine aux pommes was perfectly fine, though serving it as four narrow slivers bordered on parsimonious. Meanwhile, the orange blossom madeleines with olive oil ice cream were a genuine delight, even if punchy at £12.
Again, credit for designing a menu that should please everyone, even for those who are partial to whiffy andouillette (£25), but does any of this cut the Dijon mustard?
What was so sorely missed during lockdown, and is arguably why we pay to go out, is great service and ambience. Far from the sun-dappled cafés and warm sea breeze of the Côte d’Azur, I experienced an Arctic chill about this corner of South Audley Street. Perhaps it was the aloof sommelier who refused to make eye contact when I tried to discuss wine choices. Perhaps it was the rush to take payment and hand back coats straight after ordering espressos even though the table wasn’t needed for anyone else (unlike Otto’s where you can linger). There were other minor irritations, such as the starter arriving before the aperitif, bread being plonked brusquely onto our plates and, despite the restaurant being relatively new, an absence of hand soap in the loos. All of these are easily fixed in themselves but together they were enough to form an impression: customer service isn’t exactly the priority here.
Feeling as deflated as the chickpea flatbread which inspired the restaurant’s name, I longed for the friendly embrace of Bouchon Racine, Saint Jacques or Noizé. Socca has potential, don’t get me wrong. The fundamentals of the cuisine are there, and with time the kinks will hopefully iron themselves out, but before that happens I’ll give this “bistro” a wide berth.
41a South Audley Street
by J A Smith