What is it about Putney that prevents it from having a restaurant of distinction? Unlike other prosperous middle class suburbs such as Chiswick, Kew, and Wandsworth, each of which boasts a Michelin starred establishment and a plethora of good neighbourhood restaurants, Putney has been woefully lacking in both. (Anthony Demetre and Will Smith’s Michelin starred Putney Bridge closed many years ago, its proprietors moving to the West End.) One can only assume that local residents are either apathetic or happy to travel further afield to enjoy good food.
All this may well change with Bibo, the latest opening of acclaimed restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas. It is run in the same vein as her previous going concerns, namely as a neighbourhood restaurant, but whereas Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes, for example, is distinctly British, Bibo offers modern Italian food.
Bibo opened in March, on the former site of Greg Wallace’s venture, with seating for 72. How much Bibo, and places of similar quality are needed, could not be made clearer by it being nestled in the Upper Richmond Road amongst Nandos, Pizza Express and Dominos! Its mere presence among these food-on-the-go establishments provides an injection of much needed sophistication.
The glass frontage and the large mirrors allow plenty of natural light, which is particularly pleasant for lunchtimes or those long summer evenings. The interior itself has a rustic look, with whitewashed exposed brickwork and stripped timber floors. The restaurant is on split levels, with the bar and main area having high ceilings with iron chandeliers, with a more intimate raised level at the back.
Those who had the fortune – or misfortune – of Latin lessons at school will know that Bibo means “I drink.” This is sound advice as the restaurant has a delightfully imposing bar and an extensive all Italian wine list created by wine specialist Zeren Wilson. Pricing is keen, with bottles starting at £17.50 and wine by the glass from £4.50. Well informed staff means and you are likely to leave better informed as well as pleasantly satisfied by the wine.
The kitchen brigade is led by an English head chef, Chris Beverley. He holds an economics degree from Cambridge, but decided on a restaurant career in food and wine after graduating. Since completing a course at Leith’s Cookery School, he has worked in some of the finest kitchens in London, including Chez Bruce, The Orrery and The Oxo Tower. However, his chief mentor in modern Italian cuisine is Theo Randall of the Intercontinental Hotel, where Chris worked from 2009 to 2012. Perhaps Chris is aiming to emulate the achievement of an earlier Cambridge alumnus, Alistair Little, who went on to distinguish himself in the gastronomic world with his eponymous restaurant in soho.
Given its relative simplicity compared with French classical cooking, the freshness of seasonal ingredients and precision in cooking are essential prerequisites for success in Italian dishes. In these respects, Bibo scores highly. In many dishes, less in more, with clear, often bold flavours shining through. Chris’s ingredient combination and accuracy in timing allow the finest produce to speak for itself..
The menu, organised in the classic Italian fashion takes pride in the provenance of specialist ingredients from the Italian peninsula and its islands. The range of dishes is well judged, with no more than six options in each course, allowing the kitchen to focus on consistency of cooking. Pricing again is keen, with Antipasti £5.00-£8; Primi £8-£9 (or as main course £13-£14); Secondi £15.50-£17; and Dolci £6.50- £7. A dish of the day, ‘Piatta del giorno’ is available Monday-Friday for £10 (or £12.50 with a glass of house wine).
Fine Dining Guide visited on a Wednesday evening. We were impressed by how busy the restaurant was, with the buzz of real enjoyment from contented diners. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming.
Homemade focaccia and sourdough breads were well flavoured with crisp crusts and firm crumb. The Coratina dipping olive oil was of very fine quality with a herbal pungency.
The finest ingredients were used to produce two vibrant, well balanced and simply presented anti pasti dishes.
Burrata had a lively freshness that came with a finely judged combination of mozzarella and cream. This light, soft cheese complemented the sweetness of roasted red pepper, both being offset by the saltiness of capers and the earthy mintiness of basil.
A tomato salad featured two specialist baby varieties: Camone from Sardinia were crunchy and sweet while Marinda from Sicily were slightly tart, more savoury and full flavoured. Crumbled Caprini, a fresh goat’s cheese from Piedmont gave a slightly acidic note and breadcrumbs (pangrattato) gave texture. Olive oil and basil giving richness and fragrance, completed this perfect summer dish.
For the primi course, two pasta dishes were chosen. Often seen as the acid test of good Italian restaurants, they did not disappoint; indeed they were the outstanding dishes of the meal.
Wide ribbons of crimped-edge pappardelle, in overlapping folds, were perfectly textured. They worked well with a slow cooked pork ragu, the richness being cut by lemon, the whole dish being lifted by delicate floral notes of marjoram.
Ravioli of goat’s cheese and new potato – starch on starch – on paper should not work. However, far from being heavy and cloying, the dish was a triumph, the small al dente parcels having a deliciously melting quality. Broad beans gave a seasonal freshness, and grated parmesan a final flourish.
Secondi main courses featured lamb and fish.
Slow cooked lamb shoulder, the sweetest of cuts, was tender and succulent, falling off the bone. This was accompanied by a rich caponata stew of aubergines, celery, tomatoes, capers and olives. Flavoured with oregano, the generously portioned dish proved highly satisfying.
A fillet of the much under rated grey mullet was accurately timed to produce a crisp skin and soft, translucent flesh. Taggiasche olives with their meaty texture with a tart flavour dressed the fish alongside capers and anchovies. These strong salty notes were balanced by the sweetness of roasted peppers and the freshness of wilted spinach.
For cheese, we sampled two varieties – Taleggio and Gorgonzola – both in peak condition. What made this course extra special were the accompaniments of pear and saffron chutney and the carta di musica, a thin flatbread originating in Sardinia.
Desserts showed the same skill and attention to detail as the preceding courses.
A trio of ice creams – salted caramel, coffee and vanilla – were velvety textures and full flavoured. Even better were the bombolini, tiny doughnuts, with Amalfi lemon curd.
Good coffee completed a well-executed meal which showed strengths in all departments. Chris Beverley clearly knows his stuff, and his accomplished cooking is likely to attract not just regulars but those from further afield.
Service was excellent throughout, with the mainly young staff being friendly, efficient and knowledgeable
The early signs, then, are very encouraging, although establishing a restaurant is a marathon not a sprint. As with all successful neighbourhood restaurants, Bibo needs a small army of regular clients, who sometimes at the drop of a hat want to pop in some good food and a glass of wine in a civilised atmosphere. If it becomes successful then it needs to stay loyal to those followers by staying affordable and ensuring the early standards being set are maintained. Certainly, these traits have helped to make Sonny’s successful, and Bibo is likely to emulate their local standing. Fine Dining guide will follow its progress with interest.