Wine glasses on display
Lemon sole with almonds
Chop-Chop!’ says Antoine Jaillet, the Assistant Restaurant Manager at Bar Boulud, the new restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park which has taken London by storm. (And these days, it’s not that easy for a restaurant to take London by storm.) But no, he’s not telling us to hurry up. He’s recommending a salad, an extraordinarily good salad – romaine lettuce, pickled mushrooms and sesame crisps – from the lunch menu. The menu develops rapidly from here on, but salad, especially a Daniel Boulud salad, is always a good place to start.
In fact, this story starts around 30 years ago when Boulud, a young chef from Lyon, moved from France to the US. Working first in Washington and then in New York, he has created a string of restaurants that now circles the globe. With five of them in New York, each with its own identity, Boulud also counts establishments in Palm Beach, Miami, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Beijing among his stable, which is growing steadily though hardly, it must be said, at breakneck speed. His London outpost opened in May 2010.
An entrée of asparagus with crispy egg
Informal seating at the charcuterie counter
But why London, I wondered, as opposed to, say, Paris or his native Lyon? I put the question to Boulud when we met in London earlier this year. ‘Well, I don’t discount Paris, maybe that will happen one day,’ he told me, ‘but I’ve been coming to London for 30 years and have always loved it. My father-in-law lives here. There is a – what shall we say? – a connection.’
Connections are one thing, but launching a successful restaurant in a city far off your beat is another. ‘Please, Mr Boulud,’ I had written to him 18 months earlier, when I first heard of his plan to open in London, ‘don’t do it!’ Too many French chefs have failed in this notoriously tricky restaurant city and I had serious doubts about a Lyonnais chef, with a reputation made in the US, hacking it in good old London town. Well, the laugh was on me, obviously. Little did I know then that the clever people at Mandarin Oriental were courting Boulud, nor that, instead of attempting to recreate his Upper East Side, three-Michelin-star flagship restaurant Daniel, in London – surely a madness in this financial market – he would open, instead, a branch of his more casual, dressed-down Upper West Side bistro, Bar Boulud.
I’ve been coming to London for 30 years and have always loved it. There is a connection. Chef Daniel Boulud
Executive Chef Dean Yasharian outside Bar Boulud’s entrance
Part of Bar Boulud’s dining area. Chef-owner Daniel Boulud chose much of the artwork, such as these Wine Stain pictures by Vik Muniz
Bar Boulud London has caused quite a stir. Two days after the restaurant opened, I met Loyd Grossman, the American TV personality and original MasterChef host, who had been to Bar Boulud the night before and was already planning to return. ‘At last,’ said Grossman, in his distinctive Anglo-Bostonian drawl, ‘a real New York restaurant in London!’
Adam D Tihany, the New York-based designer who has worked so successfully with Mandarin Oriental in the past, has turned a previously unused space on the hotel’s lower-ground floor into a very cool yet almost workman-like restaurant. He wanted to create a venue with the feel of a wine cellar, and you’d have to say he has succeeded, with a cork-panelled façade, vintage oak floors and a long, zinc-topped bar. Don’t come expecting Tihany’s characteristic exuberance – this is not Le Cirque in New York or Aureole in Las Vegas. It’s woody and restrained, a little bit masculine, perhaps, though not overbearingly so – functional but fun. Wine-bar chic, if you like. You enter via the wine cellar and bar and the open kitchen is off to the left. There are two large dining rooms, one on the street with natural light, the other windowless but with a palpable sense of excitement adjoining the open kitchen.
Part of the restaurant is open to the kitchen. The glass counter displays the charcuterie and cheeses
Executive Chef Dean Yasharian, who was sous chef at Bar Boulud New York, says that the open kitchen raises everyone’s game. That is almost certainly true, but it also injects some additional fizz into the proceedings. The kitchen is like live theatre, the audience of diners a vital, interactive component.
Yasharian is an American chef who spent time at the Michelin-starred Midsummer House in Cambridge, England, before returning to New York to open Gordon Ramsay’s (now closed) restaurant at The London. He then went on to launch New York’s Bar Boulud. In London, he feels, Bar Boulud combines the best of the two cities. ‘Everyone here, both front and back of house, has had New York experience,’ he says, which may go some way to explaining why service at Bar Boulud London is so deft, so smart, so on the nail, and why Yasharian’s large kitchen brigade of 34 always look focused on the job in hand. In his first head chef position, Yasharian has huge responsibility, but clearly his boss feels he is up to it.
The fruits de mer
Not that Boulud is going to take his eye off the ball. ‘Daniel spent longer here than at any other opening in the seven years I’ve been working with him,’ says Yasharian. When they were fitting out the burger station – and his best-selling burgers are legendary – Yasharian recalls how Boulud would spend hours there, working away to get everything right. ‘He got his whites filthy but, eventually, he got the station sorted.’
As for the food, it mirrors the New York original, with some tweaking for the UK. The charcuterie, from the great Parisian charcutier Gilles Verot, a long-time friend of Boulud, stole the show when Bar Boulud opened in New York. Now it is stealing the show in London, prepared in-house by a talented young charcutier, Nicolas Marragou. Marragou, who works under Verot’s guidance, grew up in a village outside Lyon where his father was the local butcher. Nearly everything is made on the premises, from the pâtés to the pulled rabbit to the tourte de canard, the slow-braised beef cheeks and the four kinds of sausage, which you can have for a starter or a main course. It’s dazzling stuff, knock-your-socks-off delicious, and then some.
Aïoli, a classic dish of cod poached in olive oil, is terrific and it seems to sell as well in London as in New York. Ditto the steak frites, along with Daniel’s signature burgers and wonderful coq au vin, made, sensibly in my view, just using the legs of the bird.
Despite the seriousness of the venture, the restaurant is relaxed…
The dégustation de charcuterie – cold speciality meats to share
Yasharian, who also worked at Bar Boulud New York, preparing fish in the kitchen
A plate of fruits de mer, on the other hand, pingingly fresh and looking as if it could have come straight from one of the great Montparnasse brasseries, is unique to the London menu, taking advantage, as Yasharian says, of Britain’s great fish and shellfish. Now that things have settled down a little after the launch, he is starting to ‘have fun’ with the menu, introducing new dishes that he feels will raise the bar even further, using British grass-fed beef and Kentish lamb – dishes that may become Bar Boulud classics of the future.
An American chef serving British beef in a French restaurant in London – fun, indeed. Even the main courses, called Plats de Résistance, have a humorous ring to them. That’s the great thing about Bar Boulud: despite the seriousness of the venture – and you can’t doubt its seriousness, or the integrity of what’s on offer – the restaurant is a thoroughly relaxed place.
The relatively small portion sizes, the joy of the wine list – with wines predominantly from Burgundy and the Rhône – the effortless charm of the staff, and the keenness of the prices, mean that Boulud can be enjoyed any time, by more or less anyone. It doesn’t stand on ceremony.
Place settings at the wooden bar in front of the charcuterie counter
There’s a choice of around 19 sparkling wines and champagnes on the menu
On my second visit, following a late lunch, we are still in the restaurant at 4pm. And, yes, it is still busy, post-lunch, pre-drinks. Coffee, tea, juice, champagne. Anything goes. Oddly, in this respect, London is now less regimented than New York – the same London that used to have strict serving times and a punishing ‘last orders’ culture. (At Bar Pleiades, the bar adjoining Café Boulud in New York, I recently met a friend for a drink at 5.30pm. By 6.05pm the bar was full to bursting and by 7.30pm it was empty – everyone had gone to dinner. That is not going to happen here in London.)
Then again, where Boulud’s restaurants in New York tend to attract a more local crowd – certainly Café Boulud and Bar Boulud, in their residential enclaves, do – Bar Boulud in London seems to be attracting a wider audience. There are chaps in suits on their way home from the City, Knightsbridge mums, couples dating and foodies galore. Recently, I spied a gaggle of London chefs (if that is the correct collective noun for chefs), four Michelin stars between them, downing some very fine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage and musing on what a clever fellow that Boulud was, while Heston Blumenthal, who will open his own restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in December 2010, has become something of a regular.
If only all restaurants could be made like this
For Boulud and his team, the opening went extremely smoothly. Painstakingly researched, the project – Boulud’s first opening for five years – was not undertaken lightly. But it seems he found a natural partner with Tihany as well as Mandarin Oriental, who, according to Yasharian, ‘bent over backwards’ to get Bar Boulud open and on time. ‘The service philosophy, the sense of hospitality – we just shared a mindset,’ says Yasharian. And his vote of confidence feels borne out in a restaurant that, even in its early days, feels remarkably hospitable, remarkably confident.
A private dining room. The ringed chandelier was designed as a deconstructed wine barrel
Of course, despite the planning and the hard graft, there is still providence and fortune to contend with – and no restaurant project, however great on paper, has ever succeeded without at least a smidgen of good luck. The One Hyde Park residential development, which, in its early stages, looked as if it might swallow up its neighbour, the handsome, well-proportioned but relatively low-built Mandarin Oriental, is now nearing completion; while the hotel will look elegant beside it, Bar Boulud is perfectly placed to serve the residents. When the huge development is fully up and running, Bar Boulud will be its unofficial ‘canteen’. Developer Nick Candy is already a familiar face in the restaurant.
If Mandarin Oriental isn’t your average hotel company, Boulud is not your average chef. He’s a great chef, obviously, but he’s also a businessman and an aesthete. Check out his websites if you’re in any doubt – they’re things of beauty, stylish and witty, and carefully crafted, just like the offerings on his restaurant plates. And like Mandarin Oriental, Boulud doesn’t do cookie cutter. Every restaurant has a different feel to it, despite the similarities, and he’s assured enough to let his head chefs take the reins. He’s a thoughtful man, too, neither effusive nor withholding – and the fact that he has just started twittering seems to be a source of amusement to his staff. Actually, as I discovered at an earlier meeting, Boulud is very up on technology, admires it and uses it to his advantage. If you have a problem with your laptop or your mobile phone, chances are he will be able to fix it and will probably grab it out of your hand to do so.
Little details give the feel of a traditional French bistro
Back at Bar Boulud, Yasharian’s own phone is ringing virtually around the clock with producers wanting to supply the restaurant. It’s the industry’s mark of respect, its seal of approval. This is a serious concern, they are saying – we want to work with you.
If early success has been the kiss of death for many restaurants, I cannot see it happening that way for Bar Boulud. It is a complex restaurant, certainly, working on different levels, and yet is also a rather simple one, with a simple philosophy: ask and ye shall be given – the answer here is always ‘yes’. The iced water comes with a flourish, not a scowl and, over the course of several lunches and dinners, I have never been asked once by any waiter if I have enjoyed the food. That is because the product is not in any doubt. A smile, yes, a tilt of the head, a question with the eyes, but always more is left unsaid by the intuitive staff than is pointlessly spoken. Ah, if only all restaurants could be made like this. London restaurants, it seems, still have a lot to learn from the French – and for that unlikely matter, from the Americans, too.