There are two types of people that will thrill at Bistrot Bruno Loubet, the quietly trendy Zetter Hotel’s latest restaurant incarnation. Type one are the gastronomes – otherwise known as foodie geeks – who follow the movements of top French chefs. They will be excited – indeed they are excited – that this Gallic maestro with proven Michelin star-power has returned to London after an eight-year sojourn at Baguette in Brisbane, Australia. He had formerly lorded it over his own Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street and L’Odéon in Regent Street.
Type two are people who love really good French bistrot cooking with that palatable British twist – fewer entrails, more splendid cuts of meat, pieces of fish and artfully constructed accompaniments. These people, who may have already enjoyed the vinous and (largely carnivorous) delights of Terroirs, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe and Wild Honey, will be ecstatic to see a similar style of cooking done with even more flair and chutzpah.
The dining room at the Zetter has a convivial air but is inconveniently shaped – there’s lots of edging round corners, skirting the bar, sidling past tightly packed tables to and from the loo. Some seats have dud views, but if you’re the lucky one, you can look out on St John’s Square or take in the golden-lit dining room all abuzz with happy eaters among the dark wood shelves and vintage pictures dotted about.
The menu is a combination of the unusual and sometimes challenging, and the clearly delicious. So while you might feel that because you’re dining in a maestro’s French restaurant, you really ought to try the guinea fowl boudin blanc or the snails, you can also go for something safer – beetroot ravioli with fried breadcrumbs and sage, for example, or onion and cider soup.
We went for the Mauricette snails, meatballs, and royale de champignon – and there was nothing frighteningly French about it. The snails were simply at their garlicky, earthy, buttery best with rich, herby mushrooms and meatballs bursting with savour. And the onion and cider soup was a thick, textured broth whose intensely aromatic flavour was further elevated by the caramelisation of the onions. A blob of creamy emmenthal soufflé floating on top elevated it still further – the dish just kept giving and giving, as did the snails, with all those great elements that worked so cleverly on their own and together.
The star of the mains was the hare royale with onion raviolo, pumpkin and dried mandarin purée. The hare – sometimes an unrewarding animal to eat – came out in an enormous, almost pulsatingly pink medallion, fillet steak style, atop an ingenious orange mound of citrussy puree. Combine a forkful of hare and puree with a bit of onion raviolo and you have a seriously inspiring bite. It was at this point that my hare-eating companion, who is a Paris-based foodie, confessed he’d rarely encountered such “rustic panache” before.
My Cornish fish of the day was something unmemorable like pollock but was served as well as could be – soft, gently flavoured, with celeriac mousseline and an intriguing tube of leek on the side that showed Loubet’s tireless inventiveness even more than the fish. To see a dark green leek used for its reed-like skin and stuffed with more leek and onion, with a squeaky clean, flavour-packed result, was actually exciting.
Puddings would have been terrific. They’re classic patisserie rendered exotic and seasonal: brioche and rhubarb tart; lemon crème brulee with jasmine tea sorbet; apple and rosemary mille feuille with orange blossom sabayon (can you tell Loubet likes Asia?). But we went for cheese from La Fromagerie, served with a heaped basket of warm, toasted brown raisin bread that would also have made for a dream breakfast.
The wine list is pretty good, as you’d expect, with a good selection of new world and non-French European wine. The enthusiastic young sommelier was very concerned that we wanted white throughout the meal – his brow furrowed deeply as he racked his brains for a hare-appropriate white – but in the end we went for a nice buttery Journey’s End (South Africa) Chardonnay and all was well.
Loubet’s time in Australia has clearly inspired him and, while ten years ago London may not have been ready for his classy, clever bistro fare, it is now, and we’re going to want him to stay here as long as possible.