A recent lunch and dinner at Bibendum in South Kensington were inspired by a friend’s innocuous question. He wanted to know how long I had been writing this column. The realisation that 2014 marks my 25th anniversary at the FT made me feel my age but also reminded me that I submitted my first article to the paper after my first dinner at Bibendum. It was typed, posted to the then editor of FT Weekend and sent very much in hope rather than expectation.
Bibendum opened in August 1987, thanks to the diverse talents of designer/restaurateur Sir Terence Conran, the late publisher and philanthropist Paul Hamlyn, and chef Simon Hopkinson, now a cookery writer. A return visit seemed particularly appropriate because last summer the Bibendum Oyster Bar underwent a significant structural transformation.
The building still looks magnificent – even as I stood outside gazing up at it in the heavy evening rain. The blue letters spell out the words Michelin, the company for which it was built as HQ and tyre depot in 1911, and the combination of large windows and colourful tiles adds to its glamour.
The big change is obvious immediately. While the cooks behind the left-hand counter in the Oyster Bar still prepare the platters of oysters and shellfish that have been the menu’s mainstay, to the right on the forecourt there is now a fully fledged kitchen, which has significantly extended the menu. This has also added rather a dramatic effect – as the heat from its two fryers rose to meet the cold night air it enveloped the cooks in steam.
What is on offer now ranges from “wafer-thin” Parma ham (a reference to Hopkinson’s obsession with Monty Python) on sourdough toast to a daily changing roster of well-executed roasts and half a dozen more substantial dishes: boudin noir with steamed potatoes; lamb curry with basmati rice; and a plate of stewed onions with Lancashire cheese and poached egg.
The pleasure of the food is enhanced by the opportunity to watch the world go by. In the small horseshoe bar, we met friends just returned from Los Angeles, who have eaten at Bibendum regularly since it opened. As we climbed the stairs to the dining room, they recalled that 20 years ago Bibendum had the distinction of being, along with the River Café, one of the few London restaurants where dinner for two cost more than £100.
The bill for four came to £444 with two exceptional bottles of wine, some very good food and highly attentive service. The menu, executed by Matthew Harris, Bibendum’s third head chef after his elder brother Henry (now at nearby Racine) and Hopkinson, continues to tread an enticing path between comfort food, French classics and those dishes that I always look to order in a restaurant because they are beyond my amateur capabilities. If I were a regular, I am sure I would order the foie gras terrine with Armagnac jelly; persuade a friend to share the roast chicken with tarragon; or take on the fillet steak au poivre, the dish that many years ago convinced Conran to hire Hopkinson.
We ventured more widely. A starter of grilled red mullet with blood orange and fennel, a special of the day, and a dessert of iced clementine parfait showed the kitchen’s awareness of seasonality, while a pithivier of truffled wild mushrooms and Comté cheese showed its dexterity. Four slices from a loin of venison were expertly cooked, as was a whole partridge and thick-sliced boiled calf’s tongue with salsa verde. The two lapses were a too lavishly dressed endive salad and undercooked Brussels sprouts. Bibendum’s caramel ice cream remains the finest I’ve ever enjoyed.
The wine list is confusingly divided by region rather than colour but we rooted out two gems: a 2002 Tyrell’s Sémillon from Australia (£69) and a very rare Kusuda Pinot Noir 2011 (£145) made by a former Japanese diplomat who is now a winemaker in New Zealand.
As I was saying good night to Lily, the cashier who has been at Bibendum for 23 years, the rest of the party, looking back across the dining room, agreed how inviting it still appears. We hope to celebrate here in another 25 years.
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Bibendum Restaurant and Oyster Bar
81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD, 020 7581 5817; bibendum.co.uk