An occupational hazard of being a restaurant critic is that people ask you where they should eat, or for recommendations on where to get the best ostrich haggis/springbok knee/pig-gut ice cream.
It’s not an easy business – the best restaurant tips are impressive but not showy, idiosyncratic without being ostentatious. I tend to buckle under the weight of expectation. With this in mind, I did a mental re-cap of places I’ve reviewed over the last few months that I’d go back to. They include, in no particular order, Chabrot Bistrot des Halles, which I’d revisit if El Pye dumped me and I wanted to impress a date without spending too much. There’s Brasserie Chavot, because it’s probably the best pound-for-pound restaurant I’ve eaten in all year. I’d go back to The Five Fields if someone else was picking up the bill (see also: 1701), and I’d give Baiwei another chance because everyone else who’s eaten there fawns over it for reasons I can’t fathom.
Judging by this list, Boulestin, just down the road from Green Park station, should be right up my street. It’s in the same ballpark as Chavot and Chabrot, in that it’s very, very French, serves well prepared, unfaffy food and gives short shrift to the recent trend towards informal dining. It works like this: you call up and tell them when you want to eat there. They book you in. You arrive, sit at a table and a waiter takes your order. He brings you your food and you eat it. It’s very postmodern, forgoing the months-old tradition of bringing your food in 12 installments, as and when the chef-come-butcher has got around to slaughtering it.
Boulestin is nestled down the Pall Mall end of St James’s Street and was easily recognisable by virtue of being the only place that was open. This end of London on a weeknight is a bit like the part in a disaster movie where the camera pans across deserted streets moments before a mob of zombies/aliens/killer robots turns up. Inside it’s exactly what you’d expect a place near Green Park to look like, with black and white tiled floors, pastel furnishings and an atrium that probably looks nice during the day but is somewhat ominous at night.
The menu darts irritatingly in and out of French, as if whoever had written it couldn’t decide which language to go for and settled on a bit of both. I went for scallops with tomatoes and capers to start, which were nice enough – a little too salty – and sweet-cured Scottish herrings, which were delicious; subtle and oily. The oeuf en gelée (eggs in jelly) – one of the menu’s more interesting inclusions – was fatty and yolky and generally very good indeed.
The baby chicken main was solid: well cooked with no messing around. Decent meat, simple sauce (tomatoes and capers; chef likes tomatoes and capers). El Pye’s dover sole was more of the same; a nice big, well seasoned fish. No fancy stuff.
I wanted a macaroon for dessert but they didn’t have it, suggesting the Sauternes custard (a bit like an upmarket crème caramel but not as sweet). It comes with prunes soaked in so much Armagnac you could use it as a makeshift Molotov cocktail, and it was the highlight of the meal.
It sounds good, right? Except, somehow, it’s not. The food is decent, the service is faultless (the maitre d’, who looked like a young Clive Owen, is particularly good) and it’s not even that expensive if you go for the pre-theatre menu, which is less than £20 for two courses.
But there’s something very unlovable about it. I feel like I’ve eaten there a hundred times before, in a bad way. It has an aura of somewhere that’s been created using an algorithm, as if someone has laboriously crunched the data and worked out with clinical precision the type of place that’s going to be on-trend in six months. The dining room looks like it was designed by a computer programmed with the words “French” and “posh”. The food takes no risks; everything is well prepared but immediately forgettable (excluding that Sauternes custard).
In short, there are loads of places serving food at least as good that won’t leave you with the nagging feeling you’ve left behind a small but important part of your soul.
First published in City A.M.