On the far side of the dining room, a large stained-glass window depicts Bibendum, better known as the Michelin Man, sitting on a bicycle with one hand in his pocket and the other lazily holding a smoking cigar. There’s swagger in his repose, a slight knowing smile breaking across his rubberised face, as the low afternoon sun pierces the blued glass, illuminating the plush carpets and white walls in a confluence of sapphire and gold.
Bibendum, Michelin’s bacchanalian mascot and namesake of this culinary grande dame, originates from a Latin quotation from Horace, “Nunc est bibendum” (now it is time to drink). Pour yourself a glass and we’ll continue…
Bibendum resides in the Grade II-listed Michelin House in South Kensington, the one-time UK headquarters of the French tyre giant. The building fell into the hands of restaurateur and retailer Sir Terence Conran and publisher Paul Hamlyn in 1987 – two friends who, when they discovered they’d been bidding against each other for the building, formed a partnership that ultimately created one of the most influential restaurants of the 1990s.
Under the stewardship of the highly talented Simon Hopkinson, Bibendum celebrated the kind of unapologetically bourgeois French cooking that the chef’s heroes Elizabeth David and Richard Olney wrote about with such verve and colour.
Seasonal and minimalist dishes were joined on the table with bottles of fine claret, and a groaning bill to take away with your petit fours at the end. It was unabashedly pompous and utterly brilliant.
Years have passed since then, of course, and gut-busting rich cuisine has slowly faded into the background of the capital’s culinary melting pot. So too, indeed, has the traditional fine dining concept of which Bibendum was once a shining beacon.
Meals begin with a bonsai-size olive tree under which rests a spoon topped with a single black olive
But this piece is not an obituary to a lost relic; this is a celebration of its momentous rebirth – a place that has spun the head of a new crowd to its opulent dining habits.
Claude Bosi took over the running of Bibendum in March 2017 to immediate critical acclaim. Already regarded as one of Britain’s brightest culinary minds, the former owner and head chef of the two Michelin-starred Hibiscus has brought to Bibendum a unique balance of classic dishes and meticulous eye for reinvention: recognisable recipes that pivot on a surprising ingredient or unique preparation.
Bosi’s cooking is wrapped in humour and highly precise technique – a potent combination that bears delicious fruit. Speaking of which, meals begin with a bonsai-size olive tree under which rests a spoon topped with a single black olive. Pah, silly reader, that’s no ovoid fruit – place it in your mouth and the ‘olive’ explodes into an entertaining palate cleanser of frozen olive juice and green apple. “My bouche is certainly amused,” my usually cynical dining companion asserts.
What's on your plate?
If the opening gambit could be accused of gimmickry, the proceeding starters are an all-out culinary assault. Cock crab mousse, caper jelly and compressed cucumber riffs on the bourgeois staple of crab mayonnaise. The same can be said of scallop tartare, air-dried scallop, and a prawn consommé infused with tarragon and lime.
The delicate sweetness of the scallop (particularly the taffy-like dried scallop) contrasts effectively with the savoury tarragon and aromatic Thai flavours of the consommé, but at its most primitive form this is still a fish tartare, only extrapolated beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.
What followed next was one of the prettiest plates currently available in London. Bibendum’s signature dish consists of a smoked sturgeon mousse ensconced in a duck consommé jelly and topped with a veritable mountain of oscietra caviar. The smoke and salt of the fish ease into the rich gamey duck flavours in perfect harmony.
There are other standouts: rabbit saddle and loin are served with immaculate langoustines, a heady shellfish bisque and a side dish of buttery brown-bread toast slathered in rabbit offal and lemon zest; veal sweetbreads are accompanied by a black truffle purée and shaved chestnut; but the final savoury course, “my mum’s tripe and cuttlefish gratin”, is as brave as it is bold.
A funky stew is accompanied by a pig ear and ham cake, which skirts the line between a terrine and a bakery product
This funky stew, with its intense offaly flavours is accompanied by what is delightfully called a pig ear and ham cake, which skirts the line between a terrine and a bakery product. It feels like a quiet salute to Hopkinson’s rendition of Bibendum, as well as Bosi’s mother: food without apology, compromise or restraint.
Speaking in 2005, Hopkinson pointed the finger at some of culinary megastars of the day: “I think they don’t love eating enough and they don’t actually love cooking things enough,” he said. “That may be harsh and they certainly are all great technicians, but none of them have enough greed about food.”
Sitting in the bright dining room of Bibendum, the walls ablaze in the afternoon sunlight, I think about this statement as my spoon plunges into the pillowy dome of a chocolate soufflé. To my mind, Bosi has a unique appetite for culinary innovation – and I’m greedy for more.
For more information, see bibendum.co.uk