Perched on a corner of Clerkenwell road, the Zetter is a boutique hotel whose previous restaurant, whilst liked enough by locals, never really attracted much critical acclaim. That situation rapidly changed, however, when it teamed up with legendary French chef Bruno Loubet, whose new bistrot has both attracted lavish praise and, as our friend put it, ‘made the outside of the hotel look like a high class brothel’. (Check out the red lights, you’ll see what he means.)
Loubet, chiefly remembered for his restaurants Bistrot Bruno and L’Odeon, is one of the pantheon of chefs credited with transforming London’s restaurant scene in the early 90s and is renowned for his innovative and refined take on the traditional dishes of his native France. Having spent the last 8 years in Australia, he has now followed in the steps of former mentor Pierre Kauffman and made a much-anticipated return to our capital.
Despite the exterior, the small restaurant is relaxed and unpretentious in style, reflecting the spirit of a neighbourhood bistrot. Its menu displays a selection of the rustic elegance typical of Loubet and, in contrast to last year’s comeback kid, Pierre Koffman, the dishes are at prices which won’t have you queasily waving the white flag of surrender. We started with a juicy boudin blanc (aka white sausage) of guinea fowl and some delicious, exceptionally garlicky, snails and meatballs. The onion and cider soup had a great depth of caramel flavours and was also well executed, although we couldn’t help wonder whether the soggy blandness of the Emmental soufflé was perhaps the best accompaniment to the dish.
We then moved on to something more substantial and, given the vastness of the portion sizes, that really isn’t an exaggeration. Pan fried pigeon breast with a rich quinoa and giblet sauce was sumptuous and perfectly offset by crunchy almonds and cauliflower. Hare Royale was deeply flavoursome and starkly contrasted by a citrusy pumpkin puree, whilst the black bream – although very good – seemed overpowered by a plethora of other ingredients.
We were far too full to consider pudding, although the call of the Valrhona tartlet was hard to refuse, but we did have a decent crack at their wine list which, with bottles starting from just £15, seems to offer something for everyone. In terms of service, the staff were exceptionally friendly but it did seem that they were cracking under the pressure of the busy restaurant and recent critical attention: things moved at a very slow pace and the sound of smashing glass was not infrequent during the evening.
Although we definitely enjoyed the food and there were some really delicious dishes, the main comment we heard from our companions was: ‘it was nice, but I wouldn’t order it again’. Perhaps it was simply the fact that we had missed Loubet’s first English ventures and thus lacked that element of nostalgia which can render very good food exquisite, as we cannot deny that the overall experience was enjoyable as well as kind to our wallets. With places like St John around the corner Clerkenwell is already a great destination for restaurants, but it’s clear that Bistrot Bruno Loubet can easily defend its right to reside in the neighbourhood.
Bistrot Bruno Loubet is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at 88 Clerkenwell Road, London. EC1M 5RJ. 0207 324 4444