How Soon Is Now?
The new Bibendum opened on the 29th of March, the day the old Britain started to close. It's a funny quirk in the history of a building that would not exist without a certain European tyre manufacturer, a building whose owner has brought in a Lyonnais dude who's spent most of his life in England in order to lock down a star or two from the French bastards who didn't think to give it one when even the great Simon Hopkinson was rattling pans and steaming ginger puddings.
The food represents all of these tensions: at once new and old, English and French, introspective and outward-looking. On our tasting menu (there's an a la carte, too, but come on) there is Wye Valley asparagus - a single spear longer and thicker than my, ahem, thumb - but there is also poulet noir; there are frogs' legs and morels and and turbot Grenobloise, but there is also a bowl of cock crab covered with elderflower jelly and adorned with very Anglo Saxon foraged herbs.
It's all good, of course: you don't transplant a Michelin-started chef to a new kitchen and suddenly discover he's lost the ability to cook (unless it's Tom Sellers). Some of it is lovely: an eggshell filled with mushroom purée and coconut foam is heady; the house cultured butter is better even than that at Quality Chop House (the bread's not bad either); the smoked hay and toasted hazelnut hollandaise that comes with the asparagus is ravishing. Sauces are immaculate across the board; presentation is gorgeous; if this place doesn't lock down at least a single star at the first time of asking I'll eat my toque.
It's still weird, though: restive. I'm not sure Claude Bosi knows what he wants it to be: it's at its best but least interesting when it goes full classical French: the turbot is (I'd venture) worthy of a 3-star kitchen; the quality of some gougères suggests he could bang this stuff out in his sleep. But it starts off much more fun and fancy free than that (with an Adria-Roca-aping olive tree concealing fake olives filled with a riff on pissaladière, and some enjoyably robust chicken scratchings); it also ends on a couple of totally bonkers notes: chicken with mussels and saffron (eh?); an immaculate pistachio tart with baby-food banana purée and Deliciously Ella "ice cream" made from more banana. Presentation runs a similar gamut, from dainty and playful to boringly immaculate simplicity to that crab dish, dressed to look like an avant-garde rockpool (like a few of the touches here, you've possibly seen it elsewhere before).
So: what's the point, Claude? If it's just about the star - and, boy, does this place have Michelin on the brain; eating there as an inspector will be like that episode when Alan Partridge goes back to his stalker's house - then cool beans, fine, good luck to you. If it's just about serving food good enough to justify the £110 tasting menu, then - again - haricots chouettes, très bien, bonne chance. In both of those hypothetical cases, it's not like he needs any help - the food and the service and the room are there already.
I'm reluctant to propose an alternative: one of the perils of the Chef's Tablification of food in the last few years is that everyone (not just Tom Sellers) must have A Story, a personal narrative that weaves its way through their every dish. I don't think that's right for an old-school bruiser like Bosi; I don't think he thinks of his food in those terms. But I don't doubt that when things click into place and Bosi works out exactly what the menu wants to say, this will be one of the best restaurants in London, and perhaps the world.
He is uniquely positioned to build a restaurant that highlights everything good about the European project, in fact: he's a living embodiment of how we on both sides of the Channel have enriched each other's lives for decades. I don't want a Dominique Crenn-esque poetry of the soul, but I don't want something this fragmented, this meaningless, either. I want something coherent, a single artistic statement that positions Bibendum not as the UK's newest one- or two-star place but as a relevant, vocal voice on the world scene. Like Brexit, it's going to be a long, fascinating few months as Bosi finds his feet and works out what he wants to say.
Unlike Brexit, I can't wait.