Fan of Indian food? Check out this distinctive central London newcomer.
North Audley Street, which links Oxford Street to Grosvenor Square, was for the first 30 years I lived in London distinguished by its elegant buildings and quiet pavements. Over the past decade it has shed this quiet outer layer and emerged chameleon-like into yet another street full of restaurants.
There is an ever-popular Roka on the west side with a branch of Joe and The Juice cheek by jowl with a branch of Prezzo opposite it. On the east side there is the one and only Mayfair Chippy while further along, in the former St Mark’s Church, there is Mercato Mayfair, which aims to be a community hub while offering at least eight different types of food from eight different kitchens. Just next door is a large hoarding that proclaims the opening of yet another Ivy Asia some time in 2022. And directly opposite this at number 42, occupying the corner site that used to be the French-inspired Truc Vert, is BiBi. (Do make sure that you enter by the door on the corner rather than wandering into number 41 right next door, which is the popular but very different North Audley Cantine, or NAC).
BiBi is the newest opening of the JKS organisation which encompasses Gymkhana, Brigadiers, numerous Hoppers and partnerships with chefs including those at Sabor, Lyle’s and Flor. Here they have partnered with head chef Chet Sharma, who has been cooking for half his life, he confessed to us: for 17 out of his 34 years. The name, BiBi, translates from the Urdu as ‘lady of the house’ and is a passing homage to Sharma’s grandmother.
Once I had walked past the terrace and squeezed through the narrow doorway I was immediately struck by two factors. The first was the quality of the finish. Down the right-hand side is an immaculate open kitchen with five chefs (two Indian, three European) working in white collarless shirts in front of a massive grill with wheels to lower and raise whatever is being cooked. The booths and tables down the left-hand side have been elegantly engineered and there are a further 12 stools that face directly on to the open kitchen.
The second is quite how small Bibi is. At the back of the kitchen is a curtain that leads to a prep area: downstairs is a smart set of lavatories. And that is it, room for a total of only 32 indoors and 16 outside. And the passageway that leads through the restaurant is very narrow – I was knocked twice by a couple who, on being shown to two stools close by, stopped to take their coats off. The waiting staff has to be extremely nimble and deferential. And Sharma had the honesty, when he came to our table near the end of our meal, to admit that this was the case. After signing the lease in pre-COVID days, they have come to the realisation themselves that the space is too small, a factor which has to limit its overall profitability.
Service was swift. I was handed a drinks menu immediately and then the menus arrived. From the former I ordered a calamansi gola: tequila infused with Philippine lime, mango, ginger and green chilli and topped with far too much shaved ice. Once over half of this had been removed, this proved a very decent drink.
We then read the menus with our waiter Mateus, born in Brazil but raised in Spain, who advised us that from the à la carte menu we should order, perhaps after a snack or two, four ‘chaats’ (starters), and three from the ‘sigree’ (grill). Or we could plump for the chef’s selection. Ignorant of many of the ingredients, and also induced by the apparent bargain of five courses for £55 per person, we opted for the latter.
Both menus stress the close relationship between the kitchen and small artisan farmers, a relationship epitomised in the first two snacks: a bowl of papads, or Indian crackers a little like prawn crackers in texture, made from Wookey Hole Cheddar in Somerset (see below) and oysters ‘pachadi’ from Carlingford in Ireland. The former, served with a very spicy, dark green dipping sauce, were difficult to resist while the oyster dish was unusually creamy but delicious.
There then followed two dishes. Cornish lobster ‘nimbu pani’ was possibly served in too small a portion for either of us to appreciate the quality of the shellfish fully and nashpati bhel. Although we both recognised the bhel part of this dish – the snap, crackle and pop of the cracked rice – we failed to appreciate just what the qualities of the pear granita, the nashpati, on top would deliver. This was a sensational combination that cooled the mouth somewhat. Incorporating a range of other ingredients that seemed to include watermelon, this was unquestionably the most impressive and original dish of the evening. Generously served too.
Our three main courses followed pretty swiftly and concurrently. Khatti meethi cod seemed the most Sri Lankan of all the dishes and was a piece of cod, topped with peanuts on a dosa. Sharmaji’s Lahori chicken was a sliced chicken breast served in a sauce of cashew nuts and yoghurt. Small rounds of minced lamb belly melted in the mouth and were served with a coriander and mint chutney and roomali roti, or (not very special) handkerchief bread. All these were accompanied by bowls of daal, rice and a serving of achari sweet potatoes topped with green pickle.
We each finished with a kulfi presented like an ice cream on a stick, a rum and raisin version covered in chocolate for myself, a saffron and white chocolate version for Jancis, who particularly welcomed this antidote to Justerini & Brooks’ 2020 burgundy tasting. Both were delicious. I paid my bill of £153 for the two of us, which included my cocktail and a glass of Morgon 2019 Daniel Bouland while our two glasses of champagne were mysteriously complimentary. We walked to the front of the restaurant to put on our coats to avoid hitting anybody else.
I left BiBi impressed but disquieted. The former sensation was obviously down to the quality of the cocktail, the friendliness of the service and the precision, distinction and ingenuity of the cooking. Sharma has obviously learnt from his stints at The Ledbury, Moor Hall, and his years at JKS. But it was the realisation that BiBI may be too small to generate the profits that this combination of talents need and deserve that left me rather sad.
BiBi 42 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZP; tel: +44 (0)20 3780 7310. Closed Sunday and Monday.