Like a regenerated Doctor Who, what’s old is new again.
I tend to review new restaurants and Claude Bosi at Bibendum does technically count as a new restaurant, having only just opened at the beginning of April this year. Except, in some ways, it is more of an amalgam of restaurants that have gone before it. Most obviously, it occupies the architecturally distinctive and timelessly fabulous Michelin House which had previously been the home of the prefix-less Bibendum. Although it keeps the Bibendum name, this new incarnation largely abandons the brassiere-ish fare of its forebear in favour of a much more modernist menu courtesy of former Hibiscus chef Claude Bosi.
Indeed, according to an overheard snippet of conversation, many of the staff both in the kitchen and in the front of the house have come over from Hibiscus. This makes the overly formal and intermittently stilted, awkward manner of the service all the more puzzling (or alternatively provides an explanation for it). This, along with the uniformed, earpiece-toting (but also unfailingly polite) doormen, the plush pile of the carpets and the modernist nature of the dinner menu (which transitioned from a tasting and a la carte options to a tasting and fixed-price alternative shortly after opening), hardly meshes with the pre-opening PR guff that this new Bibendum would be a casual place.
The layout of the Art Deco-ish dining room has changed relatively little, with the allure of the room as photographed in my old review of the pre-Bosi Bibendum remaining undimmed. The new banquettes leave much to be desired if, like me, you’re a shortarse with a wobbling ostrich-like behind that’s constantly in danger of sliding down the smooth, frictionless leather. It’s worth putting up with though, especially if you can time your visit for sunset on a cloud-free day. The golden sunlight streaming through the iconic stained glass windows ripples off the ribbed white threads of the tablecloths to beautiful effect.
The tasting menu at Claude Bosi at Bibendum
Despite the PR spiel that Bosi had abandoned the fine dining standby of a tasting menu, one appeared shortly after opening. There are a few returnees from Hibiscus, such as an amuse bouche of cashews and peanuts with a surprisingly fruity undertone.
A crisp shell filled with an olive flavoured liquid inside would’ve been unremarkable, but for its elaborate presentation – placed daintily on a spoon underneath a small olive tree. It’s kinda charming, but I’m ultimately relieved that this is one of the very few examples of over-the-top self-indulgent presentation at the new Bibendum.
Roast chicken crackling, served with a dipping/scooping mustard on the side, oddly resembled roast chicken-flavoured crisps. I had previously thought that snack to be so divorced from the actual bird as to be effectively unrelated. The crisp and light crackling was pleasing enough, despite the junk food resemblance.
The highlight of the miniature savoury ‘ice cream cone’ wasn’t the muted foie gras that made up the bulk of the whipped ‘ice cream’, but the rich and oily salmon roe.
Soft and doughy cheese balls were essentially parmesan bread sticks in spherical form, but weren’t worse off for it.
The highlight of all the amuse bouche had to be the curry powder mushroom and coconut cream served in a hollowed-out egg shell. The meaning behind this odd presentation is lost on me, but the combined effect of the various fillings was akin to an earthy and distinctly tropical tasting vegetarian curry.
A bed of evocatively salty crab came smothered underneath a herby sweet elderflower jelly. The gummy texture of the jelly was initially off-putting, but I eventually warmed to the dish – especially as the sweet herbiness of the jelly proved to be surprisingly complimentary to the crab.
A spear of asparagus was positively verdant in its forest green colour, but it was also a tad over-salted. Its yielding texture was just right though and proved to be an apt textural conveyor for the earthy hollandaise and the distinctive nutty crunchiness of the hazelnut bits. The sharp candy sweet kick of orange confit provided a breezy lift at the end.
Although it’d be easy to get distracted by the shiny bread basket and the Bibendum-shaped butter dish, the contents of neither proved to be up to snuff on this first visit. Slices of both brown and white were far too hard and chewy for comfort, while the lactic tartness of the butter wasn’t as unctuously pleasing as the stuff served at Lyle’s.
Sweet, earthy and starchy vegetable balls were billed as ‘dumplings’. They were elegantly flavoursome on their own, regardless of the nomenclature, but were made even better by being served in a prawn consomme. The profoundly intense umami and sensual bisque-like evocation of the shell was ridiculously delicious.
The Turbot ‘Grenobloise’ is apparently a Hibiscus classic, but I found this dish to be entirely unconvincing. Despite the muted wispiness of the brown butter sauce, it was still enough to obscure the firm texture of the turbot discus.
Wrinkly morels soothingly massaged my tongue as they slid their way down my throat. The other elements in the sauce alongside the morels were an eclectic assortment – I would almost swear some were moist flecks of chicken and others were earthy sweetbreads. Some had the intense umami and fibrous texture of dried then rehydrated scallops. Regardless, everything came together beautifully in the subtly bitter, deliciously herby sauce.
Tender asparagus stalks made a repeat appearance in the main meat dish, but the star of the show was undoubtedly the Galician beef fillet. It was tender, yet with just enough resistance against the knife to make things texturally interesting. The deep, rich, life-affirming umami and beefy tang was the culinary equivalent of an intensely passionate French kiss – the kind pressed up against a wall with fingers in your hair. The sweet undertone, oddly reminiscent of Sicilian blood oranges, would therefore be the nail marks raked across your back.
Against all this, the asparagus was a distraction. The ‘jam’ of beef shin and, I’m guessing, a reduction of smoked eel added even more umami and some earthiness too, although the Galician beef really didn’t need it. The light pickled vegetables served on the side were most certainly needed and very welcome though – their sharp and sweet grape-like flavour was a welcome breather after the body shuddering intensity of the Galician beef.
An asparagus tart for dessert sounds bonkers, but Bosi and his hatted kitchen battalion made it work. The tart filling was subtly bitter and sweet, which meshed surprisingly well with the musky sweetness of the dark swirly smear of olive. The crunchy coils of hard coconut were an unnecessary flourish on the already distinctly flavoured and refreshingly cool coconut ice cream. The bracing briskness of the ice cream deserved to be enjoyed without any interruption.
Dark, slightly bitter chocolates had a gooey, tacky caramel centre that made these petit fours more interesting than most.
Weekday a la carte at Claude Bosi at Bibendum
The same amuse bouche that precedes the tasting menu at Bibendum also comes before anything you order a la carte. Everything was much the same as it was before, with the notable exception of the coconut-mushroom-curry powder egg. It wasn’t nearly as well-balanced and flavourful as before, with a greater proportion of coconut foam drowning out the mushrooms and curry powder.
At least the bread had improved, softer than before while still retaining a measure of chewiness. The brown had a nuttier taste to it, while the white had a popcorn-like caramelisation to it. The butter was still had a tad too tart for my liking, but it was at least creamier than before.
Duck jelly accompanied by a creamy yet fleshy meaty layer unsurprisingly had a moreishly meaty consomme-like taste to it. Caviar was subtly moreish, tangy and almost caper-like, although the latter may be a placebo-like effect of its caper-ish appearance. Rather than complimenting or contrasting with each other, the two halves of this dish had the odd effect of cancelling each other out when taken together. I honestly can’t decide if this dish is a clever blending of fish and fowl, or the savoury equivalent of a blancmange that’s a little too subtle and clever for its own good.
I was even less convinced by the ‘porchetta’ which bore only a tangential resemblance to the traditional versions of this Roman/Lazian classic. The literal round of pork was soft almost, but not quite, to the point of mushiness and came encased in a very soft circle of fat rather than crackling. All of this, along with the visible chunks of pork pressed together in the round, made it seem more like a gussied-up terrine or brawn, rather than a slice or two of roasted porcine muscle. The vaguely herby jus was less memorable than the sweet and sharp slices of root vegetables. While not inedibly awful, this dish was ultimately an unnecessary and unsuccessful reimagining of an Italian classic.
This second meal was saved from disaster by the dessert. The chocolate soufflé was ethereally light and wispy. The subtly bitter and distinctly aniseed-like flavour of the chocolate blended surprisingly well with the the vanilla ice cream, popped in through a small hole in the crust. The melted melange of soufflé and ice cream created an astonishing liquorice-like taste – astonishing both in its unexpectedness and in that I liked it. I usually abhor liquorice.
Weekend a la carte at Claude Bosi at Bibendum
The amuse bouche remained unchanged, which meant that the egg cup concoction remained as disappointingly unbalanced as it had been the second time around. The bread saw a slight regression with the slices of brown now more muted once again.
Bibendum’s lobster bisque leaned a bit too much towards bell pepper and tomato territory, but it still had enough salty umami to be effective. The latter was helped along by the small cheat of a few extant bits of lobster. These crustacean portions were texturally superlative though with a springy firmness that would put most whole-body lobster dishes to shame. A light sponge-like ball, possibly composed wholly of gluten, proved to be highly effective at soaking up the bisque. I honestly couldn’t decide if I’d rather have more lobster or more gluten balls.
I couldn’t help but think of Veal Smasher, one of my dining companions, when ordering the veal brain. His love of tenderising meat with a calm brutality while watching zombie films and TV shows is positively Lynchian. The veal brain here had a similar-ish two-sided quality. Texturally, it was light and billowy to the point of falling apart under the crisp crumb exterior that was almost as ethereal. And yet, in my mouth, it was gently creamy with a funky offaly undertone that belied its placid appearance. The sticky, moreishly meaty gravy wasn’t just the proverbial icing on top – it was substantial enough its own right to fuel hill walkers and mountain climbers.
I have to be even more careful than usual when critiquing this next dish. If Bosi is famous for one thing more than hoovering up Michelin stars, it’s for having a well-publicised spat with a reviewer that he disagreed with. It’s ancient history now, but both sides behaved poorly. Anyway, this tripe and cuttlefish gratin isn’t just another Bosi dish but one apparently based on his mother’s recipe.
First, the good news – this sticky, hearty, moreish and warming gratin was winter-insulation in food form. The bad news is that it was a textural damp squib. The cuttlefish seemed to be absent (unless it had been reduced into the sticky stew-like sauce), while the chopped bits of tripe made it difficult to appreciate the wrinkly, slithery dimpled tassles of the offal which is always one of the joys of tripe for me.
The accompanying pig’s ear and blood loaf slices were better balanced and soaked up the gratin well, even if they won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It was an odd but pleasing hybrid with the taste of black sausage and the texture of a Dim Sum taro cake. The refreshing green salad on the side was a much needed palate cleanser after the double-whammy heaviness of gratin and loaf.
A dessert of strawberry and balsamic vacherin wasn’t some bizarre variation of the well-known cheese, but a reimagining of the lesser-known French meringue dessert. Many won’t look beyond the admittedly eye-catching horse chestnut-like shell and gloriously intricate seed-like interior. Once one does though, one realises it’s not substantively different from an Eton mess or other similar meringue desserts. The meringue is technically well-executed – neither too thick nor too thin, with a crispy initial bite and a gently crunchy follow-through.
While the brisk coldness of the baby fruits at the centre of the meringue shell were a welcome palate cleanser after the heaviness of the gratin, their lack of character would be a disadvantage following a lighter main. This wasn’t helped by the cream which, apart from a brief initial hint of balsamic, was essentially a blank slate.
At least the petit fours chocolates made a welcome return.
I’ve almost finished warbling on, I swear
The now very familiar amuse bouche were much the same as before, with the bread continuing to flip-flop in quality. The only substantive change was the filling of the hollowed-out egg shell. The mushroom puree had been replaced by a crisp and sprightly pea puree. The firm bite of extant pea shells combined with the coconut cream and curry powder produced a lively risotto-ish effect.
Scallops were sliced to the thickness of bacon and tiled to form, in effect, a scallop carpaccio. While smooth and soft – almost reminiscent of abalone – the lack of meaty thickness to dig my teeth into was an odd sensation for a scallop dish. Even odder was the strawberry sauce. While crisp with an extraordinary fragrance that actually smelt of a fresh punnet of strawberries, its sprightly fruitiness seemed out of place layered on top of the scallops. I’m still not sure what to make of this dish.
The round shape of the kid gave me unpleasant flashbacks to the roundly unsuccessful porchetta. This baby goat dish was far better than the porchetta though – tender and very earthy, especially in the occasional bits that deviated from the main in resembling pork liver pate in texture and taste. The moreish sauce was dotted with salty and gently tenderised stems of samphire and the occasional slice of springy, distinctly salty razor clam. Even though I longed for whole clams to dig my teeth into, the sauce was still hugely enjoyable even if it didn’t mesh with the kid. The result was an odd dish of two halves that never quite coalesced into a cohesive whole.
Olive oil millefeuille for dessert sounds almost as odd as scallops with a strawberry sauce as a starter. The thin layers of pastry were top notch though – buttery and crisp with an occasional hint of ginger. Alternating layers of vanilla and mango cream tasted more of the fruit than the pods, which isn’t entirely surprising as non-artificial vanilla is considerably more expensive than mangoes. The only presence of olive oil that I could detect was the odd but very pleasing herby sweetness in the ice cream on the side. Millefeuille can often be too dainty and unsatisfying, but Bibendum’s version was a satiating class act.
Although identical in shape and presentation as before, the chocolate petit fours had fillings were noticeably gooier with a more pronounced caramel taste that blended beautifully with the gently bittersweet chocolate.
It’s clear that the kitchen at the new Bibendum is far more comfortable within the confines and rhythms of the tasting menu. It’s where Bosi’s quirky and inventive yet occasionally reverential version of fine dining can guide, satiate and surprise the diner to the best possible effect. It feels less sure-footed when it’s on a la carte territory, where the sequence of tastes and textures feels more disjointed, abbreviated and ineffectual. This is especially the case when the kitchen attempts earthier, more proletarian dishes – those missteps are less stumbles and more careering chicanes and jolting speed bumps.
This rough seam is even evident in the pricing with the £85 three course fixed-price menu rapidly approaching the cost of the £110 tasting menu. Given both this and the quality issues in the a la carte menu, the only reason to opt for the former is if you don’t have the appetite or the time for the three hours or so it takes to eat the tasting menu which is even more gut busting than the fixed-price menu.
My mixed metaphors aside, it seems likely that the kitchen will find its way and iron out its quality issues. But unless the service is somehow less starched, stuffy and overly formal at lunch times and becomes less so at dinner, I can’t help but feel that a part of the old brasserie-plus spirit has been lost in this new, plusher version of Bibendum. I still love Michelin House and Bosi’s tasting menu is, at its best, a work of genius. But this new restaurant is less the old Bibendum and more a new Hibiscus, with all the loaded Michelin star-chasing self-indulgences and Monaco-on-Thames clientele that goes with that.
Name: Claude Bosi at Bibendum
Address: Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, Chelsea, London SW3 6RD
Phone: 020 7581 5817
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Saturday noon-14.15 and 18.30-21:45. Sunday noon-15.00. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Average cost for one person including service but excluding coffee: £110 for the tasting menu; almost the same for the fixed-price three-course menu