It was with genuine delight and much anticipation that I greeted the news of Bruno Loubet’s return to London. I rushed off to dig out the menus and bills of his old London restaurants I had filed away – what a sad life I lead! At Gastronome One, The Four Seasons at the Inn on the Park, Bistrot Bruno and L’Odeon, from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, Bruno excelled in meeting the varied needs of bistro, brasserie and fine dining, winning in the process the Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year award (1985 at Gastronome One) and a Michelin star (Four Seasons, 1989)
Of all his restaurants, Bistrot Bruno made the greatest impression in its relatively short existence (1992-95). This cramped, narrow and uncomfortably furnished Soho dining room became a magnet for serious foodies, inspiring many repeat visits. I personally ate there twenty eight times in three years. Memories came flooding back of the wonderful, often ground breaking dishes: scallops with black pudding; rabbit leg with lime pickled potatoes; shallot tatin with chicken livers and balsamic reduction. These and many more demonstrated Bruno’s greatest asset: his food IS memorable.
Primarily it is the great depth of flavour, but also the generosity, the lack of pretension, and the brilliant innovations to the classical rustic cuisine of south west France. Indeed, his pioneering spirit has resulted in dishes such as scallops and black pudding and vegetable tatins being commonplace on current restaurant menus.
After nearly ten years in Australia, where he also met with critical acclaim at three different restaurants, he has set up as chef patron of Bistrot Brunot Loubet at the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell. In partnership with Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan, Bruno hopes to leave his indelible mark on London eating, initially in a part of the capital which has seen a flowering of hotels, bars and restaurants.
The 85 cover ground floor dining room at the Zetter has floor to ceiling windows which adds to the sense of space. It is curved like L’Odeon, wider than Bistrot Bruno, but not as grand as the Four Seasons. Its modern eclectic design incorporates room dividers decked with modern and antique clutter (such as Victorian jelly moulds) and spot and lampshade lighting. Classic wooden bistro dining tables and chairs are closely arranged together. There is an open kitchen with the passe in close proximity to the diners. This is very much to Bruno’s advantage, given that he loves to be at the helm in the kitchen, instead of in front of the television cameras!
The menu is carefully judged both in terms of the range of dishes and pricing structure. Starters range from £6.50 -£8, mains from £14 to £18, and desserts £5- £6.50. A du jour menu features three courses of dishes for two, including a tureen of soup left on the table for people to help themselves. This innovation is designed to encourage sharing the joys of the table, a key part of his “social eating” philosophy
Bruno’s cooking is not for faint hearted or conservative diners. Big, bold flavours and intense sauces are hallmarks of his food. As one would expect of bistro cooking, quenelles, smears and coulis are shunned in favour of a more straightforward and unadorned look; although apparent simplicity may belie the sophistication of execution. The menu also features playful modifications of the classics. Consider, for instance, Bruno’s take on French onion soup which benefits from the addition of cider and is garnished with an upside down emmenthal soufflé instead of the usual cheese topped crouton.
Bread is baked and served in a clay flower pot, a novel if inexplicable feature. An amuse bouche of lightly pickled sardine allowed the freshness of the fish to shine through.
A cold tuna starter is a major innovative dish that could become a classic. Layered batons of seared tuna are pressed in a terrine and layered with lardo di Conolatta, giving the lean fish a degree of succulence. The sliced terrine revealed a stunning marbled effect. The richness of this “surf and turf” dish is cut by an apple puree spiked with wasabi, whilst textural contrast is given by a celeriac remoulade.
Truffled mushroom royale served in an eggshell had a heady, earthy fragrance. The accompanying melba toast had tiny piped mounds of parmesan cream topped with walnut pesto. This combination of strong flavours worked well, creating a taste sensation. Pan fried loin of English rose veal was well flavoured and served in its own light broth. This confirmed Bruno’s all round versatility with simple as well as complex dishes. Two dishes demonstrated the real essence of south western French cookery with modern adaptations:
Pan fried breast of wood pigeon was perfectly timed to a medium rare that prevented it from becoming like liver, whilst the giblet sauce complimented the deep gaminess of the bird. Thinly sliced raw cauliflower florets, almonds and quinoa proved unusual but appropriate garnishes, their crisp texture balancing the softness of the pigeon.
The piece de resistance came with the hare royale, a classic dish simplified for bistro dining. Served as a generous slice of ballotine, Bruno’s version includes pieces of the meat and offal in an unctuously intense red wine sauce thickened with hare blood. Purists would note that foie gras was absent, but this did not detract from the overall success of the dish, indeed the foie gras was not needed. The onion raviolo added another savoury note, being a variation on the pasta usually served with this dish. The pumpkin puree was enlivened with dried mandarin zest which added an element of sweetness. Again, bold innovation of this kind allows Bruno’s food to advance the culinary boundaries beyond its strictly classical limits.
Dessert, a warm tarte of brioche, rhubarb and crème fraiche, was exemplary in its light texture and fine balance of sweet and sour elements. Other items such as lemon crème brulee with jasmine tea sorbet and apple and quince mille feuille with chilled orange blossom sabayon showed imaginative variations on classic themes.
Service is friendly and relaxed, if occasionally too hurried. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of a genuine desire to please, with helpful suggestions given when requested.
Bruno has taken a bold, brave step in returning to England at the age of 48, after such a long time abroad and with major changes to the London restaurant scene. Initially aiming to open a gastropub with its own smallholding, he was persuaded to embark on another project in London instead. Bistrot Bruno is an all day eating establishment so the pressure is even greater. Is he capable of maintaining that creative spark, that genuine passion for cooking, that determination to succeed at the highest level? Will he be able to survive the competition? All the evidence in the short time since he opened portents well for the future, and certainly Londoners have welcomed him back as a long lost friend.