The opening in spring 2010 of Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, one of the best luxury hotels in London, has set the London food scene buzzing and so we sent Heather Cowper along to find out what all the fuss was about.
As you enter Bar Boulud from the bustling Knightsbridge street-side it’s obvious that this is a restaurant that is passionate about wine. You’ll pass the glass wine cage with wine bottles lovingly laid out side by side and the curvaceous zinc topped and cork fronted bar, lined with colourful bottles opposite the soft seating area where twos and threes are relaxing with a drink.
The restaurant is the latest baby of Michelin star chef, Daniel Boulud who has super-star status in the US, where he built up his culinary empire, but is something of an unknown quantity on this side of the pond. Although Daniel Boulud grew up close to Lyon in France, he has become a big-time player on the Manhattan food scene with his flag-ship restaurant, Daniel and a string of informal Boulud eateries, with the family now extending beyond the Big Apple to other North American and Canadian cities. Wherever they may be in the world, the Boulud theme is unmistakably French, with food inspired in by the regional cuisine and charcuterie of Boulud’s childhood and complimented by wines from the Burgundy and Rhone regions.
Like the New York Restaurants, Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park is designed by Adam D. Tihany who has reinterpreted the French bistro theme with his signature understated luxury and attention to detail. There are plenty of polished oak surfaces, pale olive water glasses and rustic woven napery that might have been inspired by the antique linens you’d find in a French provincial flea market. If you’re not too busy enjoying the food and wine you might notice the subtle wine cellar theme in the leather seating, just the shade of a deep red burgundy and the chandeliers resembling the hoops of a wine barrel. On the walls are colourful pictures of stained glass wine goblets, photographs of top Lyonnais bistros and a row of framed splashes of fine wines that have been a big talking point.
Since the restaurant opened in May, it seems that there’s hardly a London food critic or celebrity that hasn’t paid a visit and on the mid-week evening that I ate there with friends the restaurant was full and the atmosphere lively. As I surveyed the room, there seemed to be every kind of diner from well-heeled Knightsbridge locals, international hotel guests, to well-groomed metro-chicks and sleek-suited businessmen at the bar. I even spotted the Grande Dame of British politics, Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher tucked discreetly in a corner.
Meat is the king on the Bar Boulud menu although, as you’d expect from a chef of this calibre, it’s presented in the most sophisticated form. You can’t really go to Bar Boulud without trying the charcuterie created by Gilles Verot, either as individual plates or as a tasting board of pâté and hams with pickles and mustards served with toasted sourdough bread. We had a selection of Pâté de Grande Mère with chicken liver, pork and cognac, Pâté Grand Père, a coarse country pâté with fois gras and truffles and the Tourte de Canard with figs and fois gras accompanied by an artfully arranged pile of Bayonne ham.
After picking our way through these delicate combinations of charcuterie, we moved on to a more hearty selection of sausages that were ideal as sharing dishes or a light main course, from the traditional boudin blanc with soft creamy mashed potato to the exotic spicy pork Thai sausages with a green papaya salad.
The burgers have been building something of a reputation at Bar Boulud with hungry and homesick Americans beating a path to their new favourite gourmet-burger joint. But there’s nothing fast-food about these burgers which come in three styles – the Yankee with iceberg lettuce, tomato and pickles in a sesame bun, the Piggie with a pulled pork burger and green chilli mayo in a cheddar bun, or the Frenchie with cheese and tomato-onion confite served in a brioche bun. They all come with a bowl of crisp, skinny fries in a metal bucket with the burgers cooked to succulent, medium-rare perfection. I love the way that Bar Boulud is reinventing familiar yet exciting food for a gourmet audience, such as the soft poached egg in a crispy casing with some asparagus spears for dipping, that’s reminiscent of the boiled egg and toasted ‘soldiers’ you might have enjoyed as a child.
If meat is the king at Bar Boulud, then wine is the queen and we had the pleasure of talking to the head sommelier, David Vareille, who had grown up surrounded by wine in the Chablis region of France and told us that he’d been building up his own wine cellar since he was a teenager. The wine list focuses on the wines of the Burgundy and Rhone region with a number of wines from smaller producers or ‘ découvertes’ and a some similarly styled ‘cousins’ from other parts of Europe and the New World wine regions. David told us how he frequently had a specially imported magnum of champagne or fine wine open at the bar so that connoisseurs can try a glass without having to splash out on the whole bottle. The restaurant takes pride in the number of fine wines that are offered by the glass and we enjoyed sipping our way through a selection of different wines to match each dish, from the fresh, flowery Vermentino house white with the lighter dishes to soft-cherry Irancy Burgundy with the sausages and charcuterie.
To finish our meal I indulged my sweet tooth, and tasted my way through a number of the deserts shared with friends. My particular favourites were the chocolat-framboise gateau of dark chocolate layered with sacher biscuit and raspberry sorbet and the pavlova with a feather-light wedge of meringue, resting in a pool of creamy custard with summer strawberries as garnish. At the sommelier’s suggestion we tried a ‘tarte tatin in a glass’ with our desert which turned out to be delicious cidre de glace from Quebec, made with apples that have been left on the tree to shrivel and concentrate their flavours in the icy winters, in the same way that eiswein is made with grapes frozen on the vine.
Considering the Knightsbridge location, the informal yet luxurious surroundings, smooth and attentive service for which the Mandarin Oriental is renowned and the creations of a world class chef, I thought that the prices at Bar Boulud were moderate by Central London standards. Charcuterie board £14 small £28 large, Sausage dishes £8-11, Burgers £13.50, Meat dishes £17-22, Desserts £6-8. There’s also an excellent value £20 lunchtime and early evening set menu on offer. I suspect that Bar Boulud is an addition to the London food scene that will keep both local and international guests coming back for more. I’m already wondering whether it will be a Yankee or a Frenchie on my next visit!
Although I’d make the trip to the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park for Bar Boulud alone, there will soon be another gourmet experience on offer with the new ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthal’ restaurant opening in December 2010. With the cuisine of not one but two Michelin star chefs on offer, the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park is fast becoming a culinary landmark in the heart of London.
Heather of Heather on Her Travels recently visited Bar Boulud as a guest of the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, London.
Read more of her work here on Passport:
Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, London Hotel Review
Bar Boulud Opens at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, London
Or read more of her work on her blog www.heatheronhertravels.com