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Bibendum: Where style meets substance

October 11, 2013

With so many restaurants in London to choose from and experience, and living some 40 minute train journey away from the big smoke itself, it’s unusual for me to frequent a restaurant more than once.  It has to be exceptional for food, value and service to use up one of my few and far between London dining credits.

Bibendum, however, is one such restaurant that draws me back in year after year, taking different people with me to experience its pleasures each time, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin (minus the rats).  On this occasion, my husband and I agreed it would be the most perfect location to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, with two wonderful friends of ours who we knew would appreciate the qualities of the restaurant just as we do.

Set in the heart of South Kensington, Bibendum’s iconic and architecturally beautiful Michelin building dominates the junction of Fulham Road, Draycott Avenue and Sloane Avenue.  Originally opened as Michelin House in 1910, the building was commissioned by the Michelin Tyre Company as their first permanent British headquarters.  The entrance of the building in Fulham Road was originally the tyre bay where cars arrived and were weighed to decide which of the Michelin tyres should be fitted.  Beyond this was the touring office, where you could purchase maps and guides to help you plan your journey and also the salesroom, which is now the Oyster Bar and Café.  The floor of the Café depicts a giant mosaic Monsieur Bidendum (the Michelin tyre man to you and me), smoking a huge Monte Cristo cigar!  Around the walls are fabulous ceramic plaques showing late 19th century and early 20th century motor and bicycle events and races that Michelin organised or sponsored.

One of our companions questioned me to see if I knew if there was a link between the Michelin tyre company and the renowned Michelin stars that restaurants all around the world covet.  I was pleased to be able to explain that the guide was indeed started by the French Michelin brothers in a bid to sell more tyres – it was a simple marketing campaign, featuring the cartoon of Monsieur Bibendum, made up himself of tyres, to encourage people to drive more in order to visit the fabulous dining destinations around France; thus spending more on motoring and tyres.  Their first guide Michelin Guide Rouge, distributed for free in 1900, was full of information about French towns, their garages and their acclaimed restaurants.  As you know, it’s still going strong today, so those clever boys, with Monsieur Bibendum’s likeability, certainly did something very right at the turn of the century.

Originally opened in partnership by Terence Conran and chefs Simon Hopkinson and Matthew Harris, the restaurants serves mouth-wateringly-good classic French dishes, adapting according to the seasons.  Although not always without fault, the service is perfectly friendly, putting you at ease from the moment you step through the doors into the Art Nouveau surroundings.  I love it because you feel right at home asking questions and nothing is too much trouble – just what you want when you’re dining out.

The menu ticks all my boxes.  It boasts big, bold, French flavours, with lots of opulent meat and fish choices, plus a good use of offal to show you that you can eat all parts of the animal and still dine out in style.  The boys both went for Steak Tartare (as we’d eaten it there before and knew it was delicious), whilst I opted for the Soup de Poissons (a smooth fish broth) and Lynne had the most unctuous crab vinaigrette.  I have to say, the soup wasn’t as delicious as I remember from a previous visit, but that is always the danger when you have a dish that your memory has built up to be something quite epic.  It was, however, a delightful enough way for me to start the meal.

Then we moved on to mains, where all three of my companions opted for the Steak Au Poivre (fillet steak coated in crushed black peppercorns), whilst I chose the special of monkfish tails in a lobster sauce, with braised fennel and girolle mushrooms.  My god, it was good.  The sauce had so much flavour I want to get undressed and bathe in it.  Fortunately for my fellow diners, I restrained myself and just gobbled it up instead.  The only downside to it was that the fennel had obviously been put into the pan when it was very cold, because the warming heat hadn’t quite managed to penetrate the inner layers and so this cold inner did not contrast well with the rest of my meal.  A good reminder to me to cook most things from room temperature, to avoid this occurrence…

The four of us were far too stuffed to find room for a dessert, despite me desperately wanting to have the chocolate pithivier that I have eaten on a previous occasion.  It’s a little (or not so little) crispy pastry filled with the most amazing chocolate mixture, onto which they pour a velvety crème pâtissière.  Mmm, I’m salivating just thinking about it.  But we just settled for the little chocolate truffles that came out with the bill.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the wine list, which is wrong as it’s a very notable part of the visit.  They have an excellent cellar, with many varieties and lots to choose from that won’t leave you sobbing in the corner when you open your credit card statement two weeks later. We had one and a half bottles of wine, a bottle of champagne and two courses each (with some of the most expensive mains on the menu) and the bill came to less than £400.  Not cheap by any means, but well worth it.  And the reason that I’ll be looking forward to returning back to Bibendum at some point in the near future.  Very near, if I get my way.

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