I received some bad news this week. Les Trois Garcons in Shoreditch has closed. I know, I know, it closed ages ago (exactly a year to the day when I found out, in fact), but nobody had bothered to tell me. I ate there all the time when I first moved to east London. It was the place I’d recommend to the folks back home when they came to visit, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, eccentric and interesting and just plain good.
But we drifted apart. I got tired of the company that Les Trois Garcons was keeping, all those tiresome new bars springing up all over the place, that hideous collection of shipping containers that opened over the road. I found new restaurants, enjoyed the company of other chefs.
When I found out it felt like a distant relative or an old school friend had passed away. I should have called more often. I should have made the effort. Was it painless? Apparently, yes, it was painless: the sale made the owners very, very rich. And Shoreditch’s loss is The Strand’s gain, with Les Trois Garcon’s general manager Fabien Babanini moving to Northumberland Avenue’s Boyds Grill & Wine Bar just in time for its major refurbishment.
But I’ll get to that later, because this week’s review is a tale of two grills (they were the best of grills, they were the worst of grills). The first is a Soho outpost of the New York-style diner Bukowski Charcoal Grill, a place that bubbles various shades of meat in oil and is best visited after a medium-to-heavy session in the nearby pub The George.
I’m going to be charitable and say Bukowski is a retro homage to the New York style of restaurant design that was popular at the turn of the decade. It’s the sort of place that looks like it might contain a bowling alley, but one of the ironic ones where nobody knows how to bowl. It looks so familiar you could be in your own kitchen, if your kitchen smelled like the ghosts of 1,000 burgers.
That sounds mean; I didn’t hate Bukowski. It’s cheap and the food does exactly what you expect, if little more. Things I liked: The sticky ribs, which are perfect post-pub food, cooked well and costing a reasonable £6.15. The cauliflower fritters with blue cheese sauce, because they contained a vegetable, which you’ll need to offset all the meat. The chicken waffle with chilli maple syrup, which makes you feel like a child or an American.
Things I didn’t like: The soft-shell crab burger, whose overriding flavour was of the deep fat fryer. The pucks of deep-fried macaroni, which tasted of the smell of cheese, but not of cheese itself. The way the waitress blew into my beer in an attempt to quell the rising foam after a bad pour.
I tried virtually everything on the menu, and it’s all nice enough. But it’s also aggressively unhealthy, so utterly, utterly fried and fried and fried that you can’t help but suspect that the owner has some personal vendetta against you and wants you dead. My leather-bound notepad is still covered in greasy finger-marks.
As we left, I asked my Glaswegian friend why he’d hardly touched anything, what with “fried” being Scotland’s national cuisine.
I’d ordered virtually nothing he could eat. “You’re lucky,” I thought. “I’ve just increased your life expectancy by a year.”
The New York diner-style Bukowski Charcoal Grill
So the thought of going to Boyds – another grill – the next night didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. It’s in the 8 Northumberland building that’s also a hotel and events space; it used to only serve breakfast to the hotel guests, and it retains a hint of that awkward, tacked-on feel common among hotel restaurants.
I’ve eaten in Boyds before and it was so forgettable that I literally can’t remember anything about it. But post-refurb it’s quietly spectacular, a tastefully decorated Victorian space with a copper-topped central bar and modern touches like horrible clear plastic seats.
It serves locally-sourced meat that’s been cooked on its fancy new Synergy Grill, which apparently burns so hot it can atomise fat and seal in moisture. It could be the new Josper Grill for all I know. It certainly makes good pork chops: charred but still tender and juicy. The steaks are also excellent, especially the Black-Gold rib-eye, with beautiful, buttery marbling and just a hint of blood.
They also serve water buffalo steak, which comes all the way from Stockbridge in Hampshire. It’s worth trying to say you have, but too lean to blow you away with flavour. Other highlights included braised leg of lamb in a rich tandoori, carrot and citrus puree, and a delicate gin-cured salmon, which was a welcome change of pace from the relentless procession of red meat.
Most importantly, make sure you order the matched wine, and demand Babanini personally introduces each one. And while he’s there, make him tell you about the time he got pulled over by the cops. And why he has a Geordie accent despite being from Leon. He’s an excellent restaurant manager but an even better raconteur, which is just as important.
Boyds is a very good restaurant that’s made great through sheer force of personality, through the vision and care and meticulousness of a manager who knows how to run a restaurant in his sleep, who can predict your every whim before it’s occurred to you, and who knows the menu as well as the chefs. These are rare and brilliant qualities, a kind of culinary gold-dust that when sprinkled over a restaurant can transform it from a former breakfast hall to a highly recommended dining experience.
First published in City A.M.