The menu, as illustrated, was classically simple. Imam bayildi (literally 'the imam fainted' although there are various explanations given as to why), a cold dish of aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes and garlic simmered in olive oil. This slightly esoteric dish was followed by the even more obscure lobster courchamps, a light, creamy sauce of shallots, chopped tarragon and parsley, Dijon mustard mixed with 20 drops of soy sauce, spooned over the still-warm tails of a grilled English lobster. This was followed by a couple of scoops of coffee ice cream, all of which was washed down by Domaine de Pique Roque Provençal rosé 2015.
A celebratory summer menu, you might have thought, although looking out of the windows of the magnificent Bibendum restaurant on Wednesday 18 May 2016, summer was very far from anyone’s mind. The skies were grey and the rain poured down as everyone who had walked the half a mile from Halsey Street in Chelsea to the lunch would testify. The lunch followed the dedication of a blue plaque to the food writer Elizabeth David, who had lived there for many years and for whom this particular restaurant was to become a firm favourite.
This meal was also to mark another more subtle landmark, the final Bibendum menu created by chef Simon Hopkinson, who has since this lunch severed all his ties with the restaurant, having sold his shares equally to Michael Hamlyn, the son of the late Paul Hamlyn, and Sir Terence Conran. They oversaw the admirable renovation of the building that Michelin first occupied back in 1909, with plenty of natural light as well as a great respect for the original features.
It was a meal that showed all the Hopkinson hallmarks of understatement, of generosity (particularly the portions of the lobster), of common sense, and above all of restraint. His influence will be missed by customers who have enjoyed the ground-floor Oyster Bar as much as the more refined restaurant upstairs, a restaurant which, when it opened in 1987, was the first London restaurant where, I was informed with horror at the time, dinner for two cost over £100. He will also be missed by all those who have benefited, and learnt so much, from working alongside the highly inspirational but sometimes somewhat prickly Hopkinson.
It was that particular side of this highly talented chef that caused him to retire from front-line cooking about 20 years ago as he moved into a more consultant role, a role that allowed his talents as a writer to flourish. His highly successful first book Roast Chicken and Other Stories was the embodiment of this skill, also evident in his weekly columns in the Independent newspaper, in subsequent books, as the author of more cookery columns (currently in Country Life) and, most unexpectedly for this reticent man, as a TV presenter and cook for BBC1 and More4.
Although details of Hopkinson’s departure were leaked as long as three months ago, the ink was finally dry on the deal only quite recently as Hopkinson insisted that his shares were to be bought equally by the two remaining partners. After 29 years this seems a very fitting end to what has proved to be both an illustrious and most successful troika.
What the future holds for Bibendum and Hopkinson is far from clear. The restaurant will obviously continue, with a planned extensive and invariably expensive overhaul of the kitchens on the first floor a priority (those on the ground floor were successfully renovated a couple of years ago). And the two remaining shareholders will face the challenge of replacing the large vacuum left by Hopkinson’s departure.
What this highly talented cook will now turn his attention to is currently unknown. Amateur cooks will be hoping that it will be to more writing. Friends, of which I am lucky enough to count myself one, will be hoping that this break from the professional kitchen will yield even more time for him to cook at various other friends’ wine dinners. His chilled beetroot soup, jelly-like in texture and laced with horseradish and sour cream, and his coq au vin are textbook dishes, cooked with the right amounts of precision and love.
Bibendum Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD, UK; tel +44 (0)20 7581 5817