Nunc est Bibendum

Nunc est Bibendum

In London for a few days, where Jamie Oliver is raising cash for Comic Relief doing commercials with children and the must-see TV event is a weekly competition between chefs forced to cook the fastest omelette. I’ve only been out once (my mother’s cooking is too good) and that was to Bibendum in the fabulous Michelin building on the corner of Sloane Avenue and the Fulham Road, which friends assured me is back in form after a handful of disappointing years. The ground floor is an oyster bar and florist but the main dining room is upstairs—a fairly plain space but comfy, adorned with old photos of Michelin garages in Europe.

Matthew Harris is chef and he’s put together a lovely menu of contemporary British cooking whch is very like contemporary French cooking but uses British ingredients and includes a few warm-hearted domestic favourites. The menu was mostly in English but then sometimes wasn’t—for example, “langoustines à la nage; sauce verte” (crayfish to the sculling; sauce green). I don’t know why. Sometimes the description was in English and French—like “soupe de poissons with rouille and croutons” or “fillet steak au poivre.” Admirably in the spirit of the entente cordiale, it nevertheless suggested an indecisive kitchen.

I started with “Six Colchester native oysters with shallot vinegar.” They wanted $55 for the petite sextet, which puts Rodney’s prices in perspective, doesn’t it? They came on the half shell but no one had severed the adductor muscle so I had to do it myself, trying my best with a fork, then a teaspoon. Was this house style? Unusual for a place with its own oyster bar, I thought, but maybe I’m just used to the more helpful Canadian way of shucking. They were delicious, by the way—very central, flavour-wise. We were thinking of ordering Sancerre but I get so tired of Sauvignon Blanc—its shrill acidity, that piercing fruit demanding attention: the relentless shrieking of a petulant child. Chablis was much better.

Clasped to the bosom of my family, I had a delightful time—though one or two strange things happened during the evening. At one point, the waiters stripped the table next to us, lifting off the stained plywood circular tabletop and rolling it through the room and out. I’ve seen waiters do that when they want a late customer to leave, but it was only 9:30 and the place was still packed and buzzing.

My main course was scrumptious: rare but tender roast pigeon with endive and bacon chopped and pan-finished beneath it, a little slip of sautéed foie gras on top and a subtle green peppercorn sauce. It was almost as good as you might get at Perigee or Thuet and it cost $70. Plus another ten bucks for some frites, and another ten for a roast onion (which was truly delectable, almost melted and paddling in a dark veal reduction). I don’t usually go on about the price but it’s worth making the point occasionally that even our most expensive Toronto rooms offer astounding value when put in a global context.