Tried & Tested

Restaurant check: Bouillabaisse

30 Nov 2015 by Jenny Southan

THIS RESTAURANT HAS NOW CLOSED

BACKGROUND

Serving fish… Bouillabaisse opened in London’s Mayfair, in June. It was set up by Australian restaurateur Kurt Zdesar – previously director of operations for Nobu, founder of the Ping Pong restaurant chain and Chotto Matte in Soho. (Click here to read a review.) Zdesar is said to have been inspired by “first-hand conversations with fishing communities around the globe”, sourcing sustainably caught seafood and recipes from coastal towns.

THE RESTAURANT

The restaurant is tucked away off Conduit Street, not far from Savile Row. It’s a pricey kind of establishment but goes for a relaxed, beach-shack vibe with the interior design. There are no white tablecloths or fussy waiters. Set into a simple white exterior with the name painted in blue on the window, there is a display of sun-bleached star fish, lumps of coral and driftwood to set the scene, and a menu fixed to a clipboard.

When I arrived one Saturday lunchtime in October, it was quiet, with a few other customers drifting in for a bite to eat and a photo-shoot taking place at the back. We took a seat at one of the sea-green leather banquettes and started leafing through the menu, while a member of staff delivered mineral water.

Downstairs is a chef’s table facing a small open kitchen at the back. Along one side are open shelves displaying cooking ingredients; and down the other are fish tanks filled with lobster and crab fresh off the boat just hours before. Personally I wouldn’t want to have to look at the living version of what I am eating, but for those not put off by that, it’s a compelling space to hold a dinner party.

THE DRINKS

Four well-priced aperitifs (£5) have been crafted by mixologist Fabiano Latham – the Beecalm (made with Sipsmith gin, dry vermouth, honey, lemon and tarragon) and the Riviera Spritz (Amaro Mondino, Mediterranean tonic, charred rosemary and orange zest) were two that stood out. There is also a pleasing selection of six beers – from Kona Island Longboard lager to Harbour pils (there is a definite nautical theme).

The wine list gives prominence to rosé, with bottles ranging from £26 to £225, and most available by the glass. Under each one is a description of its characteristics. The Château Leoube 2014 from Provençe is “supple and drinkable”, for instance. The house champagne is Gosset Brut Excellence (NV) at £60, while at the upper end is the Dom Perignon P2 1998 for £600.

Whites and reds are divided into “Classic” and “Coastal” sections, with about ten labels in each. Countries ranging from Sicily, France and Spain to Macedonia, Chile and Canada are represented, with prices from a very reasonable £24 for a low-alcohol Vidigal Vinho Verde from Portugal. We went for a bottle of 2014 South African Huia Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (£40), described as “intense with tropical notes and a zesty, round finish”.

THE FOOD

The modern seafood concept at Bouillabaisse was conceived by executive chef Jordan Sclar. Our meal began with a rustic basket of crisp crudité vegetables (a light alternative to bread), and some tzatziki with aubergine and courgette fritters to share (£5.90). We then moved on to a trio of mains we each wanted to taste.

The fish fingers en croute (gurnard in a quinoa and herb crust) with mushy peas and tartare sauce, came on individual strips of white bread, which seemed unnecessarily fussy (£9.50).

The homemade lobster ravioli (£14.95) with delicate snow crab, chopped Morecambe bay prawns and sweet potato was, on the other hand, excellent. It had a wonderful flavour thanks to a drizzling of rich bouillabaisse and a sprinkling of Parmesan. I could have eaten more than three. My only criticism was it wasn’t very warm.

We also ordered the moreish snow crab cakes (one of the most popular dishes, apparently), which came with a garlic and herb salsa (£13.90). Resisting a side of haddock mac and cheese, roasted artichoke hearts (a bit greasy) and sautéed spinach accompanied.

Another time, I would have to go all out and order the seafood platter (sole, clams, mussels, prawn, lobster, scallop and langoustine) or, of course, the bouillabaisse of wild sea bass, hake and John Dory that simmers away in the galley downstairs. Straight from the wood-fired oven comes whole pink grouper, lobster from the Isle of Skye, seafood pie or Hebridean langoustines.

Moving on to the sweets, I have never seen such a huge dish of vanilla crème brûlèe, topped, in this case, with fresh blackberries and blueberries. There is enough for two people but one person with a good appetite could certainly devour it. It was great value at £7.90.

I had high hopes for the Key lime pie (a coastal favourite from Florida) but its deconstructed components (meringue, biscuit, sorbet and curd) meant you had to work harder to get a mix of all in one mouthful. It was beautifully zesty, though, thanks to lots of fresh lime. For a taste of the British seaside, you can order a couple of scoops of rum and raisin ice cream or some cherry ripple.

THE SERVICE

This isn’t a formal Mayfair restaurant so service is fairly relaxed and chatty. Food is delivered in such a way as to encourage sharing and using your hands. It wasn’t a busy afternoon so staff were being a bit more attentive than they might normally have been.

VERDICT

There is a lot going for Bouillabaisse – it is a concept that I think works well and offers something different in a city that sees new restaurants opening every day. If you are in a group, book the chef’s table downstairs for views of the fish tanks. The restaurant was a good choice for lunch, being light and airy inside even on a grey autumn day.

There is plenty to choose from on the menu and everything is freshly plucked from the sea or prepared by hand in the kitchens (the pasta is made daily, for example). You can tell thought and care has gone into every dish, and attempts to, at once, be elevated and authentic. It doesn’t always work but I didn’t eat anything sub-par.

You can spend quite a bit of money on a meal, but there are some good-value dishes to try as well so it is not prohibitive. Personally, I think the sharing plate trend is over-done these days so it would be better to stick to ordering for yourself to get maximum enjoyment (especially if you are with clients).

  • OPENING HOURS Lunch Mon-Fri 12pm-3pm, Sat 1pm-4.30pm; dinner Mon-Fri 5.30pm until late, Sat 6pm until late.
  • PRICES Bouillabaisse £52, £68.50 seafood platter, seafood pie £12.90, oysters £22.50 for six

Jenny Southan

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