Return of Boulestin in name but not in spirit

28 Sep 2013 by Nick Lander/FT
Nobody could have been more excited than I was to see the name Boulestin reappear above the door of a London restaurant. In its former incarnation in a basement off Covent Garden that is now a Deep Pan Pizza, I once enjoyed the only meal of my life that I can categorically describe as 'life-changing'.

It was November 1980 and I was a neophyte importer of California wines. My distributor called to say that he was coming to town and he wanted to have dinner with a leading wine writer. I knew none but I was intrigued by the attractive blonde woman whose eyes had met mine across the room at a tasting of the Zinfandel Club in the basement of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

We met for dinner on the red banquettes of Boulestin, a setting similar to Le Gavroche today. Within the year I became, and remain, a happily married man although my Mrs Lander is still far more widely known as Jancis Robinson.

Marcel Boulestin was a French chef who came to London in the early 20th century. He settled, wrote numerous cookbooks and became one of the first chefs to appear on TV. His elegant book, Simple French Cooking for English Homes, is still in print.

Over the past year, the name Boulestin has featured during numerous discussions about prospective London openings. The name had been picked up, I heard from various sources, by Joel Kissin, who was scouting around London to find the most suitable location for it.

Kissin certainly has the wherewithal, both professionally and financially, to pull this off. During the 1990s he was MD of Conran Restaurants in its expansionist era, overseeing the openings of Mezzo, Butler's Wharf Chop House and Le Pont de la Tour. He moved to New York to open Guastavino's for Conran before a foray into property and, subsequently, a return to London.

Number 5, St James's Street, the address Kissin has now hung the Boulestin name over, comes with a rich patina of restaurant history itself. It was formerly L'Oranger but before that it was home to Overton's, a classy fish restaurant. The omens looked good.

Certainly, as I walked down St James's Street alongside Mrs Lander, I was excited and certainly far less nervous than I had been before my last meal at Boulestin. But on the now two occasions I have eaten here, dinner followed by a lunch, I have left disappointed and not just with what we have eaten.

The core of the problem lies in what Kissin is trying to do with what has always been a most elegant, albeit narrow, dining room with a skylight at the rear and outside seating on one side. Today, presumably because cafes are so à la mode, the restaurant has been split into tables that constitute Café Marcel at the front and the restaurant at the rear. This is a confusing and unappetising arrangement.

This lack of clarity continued once we had been shown to a corner table. As a dining room, it really is charming, but as the manager presented the menu and wine list, I couldn't make up my mind whether I was sitting in a restaurant or a brasserie.

The large format of both menu and wine list certainly signify the latter but not in a user-friendly manner. They are large and consequently awkward to hold. The chosen typeface is undistinguished and the use of two shades of green is not particularly attractive.

Certain ingredients have their origins specifically designated - the eggs in oeufs en meurette are Cotswold legbar, the pigeons and quails from the Loire, the venison simply from Scotland - but not all of them are so described. Some dishes are in French but most are in English (the list of soups reads: soupe au pistou, cauliflower soup, soupe de poissons). There is a prix fixe menu but not at lunchtime.

All this would matter less if the food matched Monsieur Boulestin's pedigree, but sadly it did not, although the two canapés we began with, one made from anchovies and the other smoked cod's roe, were excellent.

My wife enjoyed the Scottish sweet cured herrings with a well dressed salad of waxy potatoes but was a bit surprised that she was allowed to order a side order of steamed ratte potatoes (£4) when her indifferent boudin noir came with undisclosed, and undistinguished, mashed potatoes. My fish soup lacked oomph and the rouille tasted of stale saffron. A serving of a single cheese at £8.75 is poor value for money.

I returned on a Friday specifically because that day's plat du jour is bourride, the sticky, garlicky fish soup that is a trademark of Provence. This version, however, was tame. I cannot understand why restaurateurs overburden kitchens at the outset with different dishes of the day when surely in a new restaurant every dish is special?

The staff need to relax and engage more. We ordered three glasses of red wine with our main course but rather than present the bottle, describe it in ten seconds and pour it specifically for us, the waiter poured our three glasses behind the bar.

I would obviously like Boulestin to flourish. But the (notably conventional) menu needs to be edited to boost quality, the prices trimmed to enhance value (as Gavin Rankin has just done at Bellamy's up the road in Bruton Place). Kissin, who may not be doing his staff any favours by anxiously pacing the floor, needs to invoke the spirit, and not just the name, of Marcel Boulestin.

Boulestin  5 St James's Street, London SW1A 1EF; tel +44 (0)20 7920 2030

The photo is taken from the Boulestin website.

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