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Nobody could have been more excited than I was to see the name Boulestin reappear above the door of a London restaurant. In its former incarnation in a basement off Covent Garden (now a Deep Pan Pizza), I had the only meal of my life that I can categorically describe as “life-changing”.
It was November 1980 and I was a neophyte importer of Californian wines. My distributor called to say that he was coming to town and wanted to have dinner with a wine writer. I knew none but I was intrigued by the attractive blonde woman whose eyes had met mine across the room at a tasting of the Zinfandel Club at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.
I asked her to dine with us, and some nights later we met for a meal on the red banquettes of Boulestin. Within the year I became, and remain, a happily married man – although my Mrs Lander is still better known as Jancis Robinson.
Marcel Boulestin was a French chef who came to London in the early 20th century. He settled, wrote numerous cookbooks and became one of the first chefs to appear on TV. His elegant book, Simple French Cooking for English Homes, is still in print, some 70 years after his death.
The Boulestin name has now been picked up by Joel Kissin, who was managing director of Conran Restaurants during its expansion in the 1990s. He later moved to New York to open Guastavino’s for Conran before a foray into property and, subsequently, a return to London.
Number 5, St James’s Street, the address Kissin has hung the name over, comes with a rich patina of restaurant history itself. It was formerly L’Oranger but before that it was home to Overton’s, a classy fish restaurant. The omens looked good.
As I walked down St James’s Street alongside Mrs Lander, I was excited and certainly far less nervous than I had been before my last dinner at Boulestin. But on the two occasions I have now eaten here, dinner followed by a lunch, I have left disappointed.
The core of the problem lies in what Kissin is trying to do with what has always been an elegant, albeit narrow, dining room with a skylight at the rear and outside seating on one side. Today, presumably because cafés are so à la mode, the indoor space has been split into tables that constitute Café Marcel at the front and the restaurant at the rear. This is a confusing arrangement. The dining room is really charming, but as the manager presented the menu and wine list, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was sitting in a restaurant or a brasserie.
The large format of both menu and wine list certainly signify the latter but not in a user-friendly manner. Certain ingredients have their origins specifically designated – the eggs in oeufs en meurette are Cotswold Legbar, the pigeons and quails from the Loire, the venison simply from Scotland – but not all of them are so described. Some dishes are in French but most are in English (the list of soups reads soupe au pistou, cauliflower soup, soupe de poissons). There is a prix fixe menu but not at lunchtime.
All this would matter less if the food matched Monsieur Boulestin’s pedigree, but sadly it did not.
The two canapés we began with, one made from anchovies and the other smoked cod’s roe, were admittedly excellent. My wife also enjoyed the Scottish sweet-cured herrings with a well-dressed salad of waxy potatoes but it was a pity nobody pointed out that her boudin noir came with undisclosed, and undistinguished, mashed potatoes when she had also ordered a side dish of steamed ratte potatoes (£4). My fish soup lacked oomph and the rouille tasted of stale saffron. A serving of a single cheese at £8.75 was poor value for money.
I returned on a Friday specifically because the plat du jour is bourride, the sticky, garlicky fish soup that is a trademark of Provence. This version, however, was tame. I cannot understand why restaurateurs overburden kitchens at the outset with different dishes of the day when surely, in a new restaurant, every dish is still special.
The staff need to relax and engage more. We ordered three glasses of red wine but rather than present the bottle, describe it in 10 seconds and pour it specifically for us, the waiter poured them out behind the bar.
I would like Boulestin to flourish. But the (notably conventional) menu needs to be edited to boost quality, the prices trimmed to enhance value (as Gavin Rankin has just done at Bellamy’s up the road in Bruton Place). Kissin, who may not be doing his staff any favours by anxiously pacing the floor, needs to invoke the spirit, and not just the name, of Marcel Boulestin.
5 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1EF, 020 7930 2030; www.boulestin.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander