From hotels to hearty, classy bistros

Timothy Barber
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Bistro du Vin
40 St John Street, EC1M 4DL

FOOD ***

Cost per person without wine: £35

IT’S hard to get excited about the name. If I didn’t know better, I’d bracket “Bistro du Vin” along with generic, naff, budget chains like Bella Pasta and Café Rouge, particularly upon learning that it’s also a chain.
However, I do know better. Bistro du Vin is the restaurant incarnation of Hotel du Vin, the chain of lush boutique hotels in pretty towns around the country. If you’ve ever stayed in one, you’ll know the experience generally defies the common-or-garden dowdiness of the name.

There are no Hotels du Vin in London, but the company is instead making its presence felt by opening up standalone restaurants. The first two are up and running in Clerkenwell and in Soho. The ethos is all about local sourcing, wholesome ingredients, down-home simplicity, classic French dishes and an extensive, interesting wine list. All of which could go either way, and some of which goes both.

First to open back in the winter months was the Clerkenwell branch, on St John’s Road. It’s not an easy location: right by Smithfield market, you’re surrounded by plenty of topflight restaurants like St John, Vinoteca and Hix Oyster & Chop House – among such company, it can be hard to stand out. The previous inhabitant of the site, Michelin-starred chef Bjorn Van der Horst, found this out with his restaurant Eastside Inn, a fine place which nevertheless closed after a year and a half.

The Bistro du Vin interior is based around the same layout that Van der Horst installed: at the centre of the large main dining area is an open kitchen surrounded by a long counter. Here, if you so choose, you can sit and eat while watching the chefs battle the heat coming off the Josper grill, a fashionable contraption that not only grills but, by some trickery or other, does so more efficiently, tastily and successfully than mere normal grills.

The grilling quality wasn’t in doubt with the steak I ate, though the quality of the meat was – it was about 50 per cent chewy fat. I’m all for local sourcing, but in honesty I’d rather you flew it in from Brazil or Timbuktu if you can’t find a better piece of beef than that in Aberdeenshire.

Everything else was pretty good though, even if you do feel rather shoved away in the dark in much of the restaurant (and it’s a big place). The décor is fine, with some lovely leather banquettes, walls crammed with pictures and darkwood tables and chairs, but I’ve a feeling it will work better as a cosy escape in winter. Downstairs in the basement there’s a private dining room called the Whisky Snug – I have a feeling this will come into its own in the colder months.

I had a satisfactory lobster bisque to start off with, served with croutons and cheese in a rustic clay bowl, while my friend’s platter of Iberico Belotta ham – served, as is the way, on a wooden chopping board – made him swoon. While my bone-in rump steak didn’t impress – I almost went for steamed steak and onion pudding, and wished I had – his Herdwick lamb rump was cooked to sweet, pink perfection and doused in a rather lovely lentil-and-vinaigrette concoction. You can order bone marrow on the side, so we did.

Though my steak missed the mark, there are eight different steaks to choose from, ranging from onglet (£12.95) to 600g porterhouse (£43). You can also have your shellfish – lobster, crayfish, clams, crab – whacked on the Josper.

The Soho Bistro du Vin, on Dean Street, is a brighter, funkier place with a similarly hearty, fulsome menu. Crucially, though, it’s not the same menu – if Bistro du Vin is a chain, it’s the right sort of chain: one that treats each outlet as a separate, stand-alone restaurant. If more pop up, I’ll welcome them, and pop along.