by Ben McCormack, The Telegraph, May 1, 2017
I’ve always thought that Bibendum’s stained-glass rendering of the Michelin Man chuffing on a cigar bore more than a passing resemblance to Sir Terence Conran. It was the Hoyo de Monterrey-loving polymath who lit the blue touch paper for London’s restaurant explosion when he opened Bibendum in the former Michelin HQ in 1987. Now for the restaurant’s 30th birthday, Conran has invited chef Claude Bosi to take up residence in Bibendum’s glass-fronted kitchen.
Bosi won two Michelin stars for Hibiscus, first in Ludlow and then in Mayfair, until he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and sold the lease last autumn. Every chef who has held two stars wants a third. It is one of the many pleasures of the re-invented Bibendum that Bosi now seems comfortable enough in his own skin that he no longer feels the need to exhaust everyone involved chasing the ultimate Michelin accolade.
Take the bowl of cashew nuts you’re given when you sit down. They’re coated in a dusting of vinegar powder. So far, so cheffy. But they also have a strong whiff of the KP Snacks about them. It’s a nice statement of intent for a menu and mood that combines full-on fine dining with some very down-to earth-touches.
There are some fancy amuse bouches left over from Hibiscus. A mini cornetto of frozen foie gras, studded with cacao nibs, that you eat in one go. An egg shell sumptuously layered with mushroom duxelles, coconut foam and curry powder. Most eye-catching of all, a miniature olive tree under which two olives nestle next to the bonsai-sized bough – except these olives are fashioned from a crisp cocoa butter shell and filled with the sun-kissed anchovy and onion flavours of pissaladière.
But there is also a sticky and stinky stew called "my mum’s tripe and cuttlefish gratin" that is more about texture and smell than taste. On the side are two crusty slices of meatloaf that turn out to be a pig ear and ham cake to soak up the funk of the gratin. And there is the most perfect bread and butter imaginable: sourdough from Hedone in Chiswick, and a golden puck that tastes so ripe it’s the dairy equivalent of well-hung meat.
The best dishes combine the high-end with the earth-bound. A hefty pair of asparagus spears, one white, one green, have a flavour as intense and fleeting as their short season. They come with a hay hollandaise that tastes as smoky as a field burnt after harvest time.
Another starter, billed simply as "Cornish cock crab, elderflower, Cornish sea herbs", turns out to be a ripple of floral jelly laid over white crab meat. Dig your fork deeper, as if you were eating a savoury sundae, and there’s a smooth whip of the crabbier brown stuff. And for pudding proper, there’s a strawberry vacherin studded with tiny peaks of meringue like a spiky Fabergé egg; crack it open and miniature red and white strawberries spill out onto a strawberry coulis, sweet and jammy.
The dining room is as beautiful as ever, with light streaming through the huge windows and smartly suited waiters wheeling round trolleys of roasts from the set lunch menu and cheese for pud. Come on a sunny day and the stained glass twirls a kaleidoscope of blues and yellows over your plate, lending an air of the sacred to one of London’s most legendary restaurant spaces.
When Claude Bosi sold Hibiscus, I wondered if he was going to do as Pierre Koffmann did when La Tante Claire closed, and return to the cooking of his childhood. But the joy of Bibendum is that this great French chef has evolved his style to give simplicity star billing in his box of tricks. All that’s missing is a cigar to light up and celebrate with.
Who to take: Your plus one for the Chelsea Flower Show
What to order: Go à la carte: it comes with so many extras it may as well be a tasting menu
Claude Bosi at Bibendum, Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London, SW3 6RD