For the Lovely One’s birthday, I planned to go French. My friend the Restaurant Expert recommended highly the fabulous Bistrot Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell. I bloody love the Zetter and particularly like the bar at the Zetter Town House – smashing cocktails and charming bartenders and the most delicious nibble parmesan shortbread things ever. So I was susceptible to a recommend for this place. Owner of a series of brilliant reviews, I booked up a friday night months in advance.
So when I got an email out of the blue declaring that the Bistrot was no more and was replaced by a no-choices menu, I was perturbed. Whither the beetroot ravioli? Where the heck was the french-inspired pig’s trotter? God damn you, Loubet!
I’d heard about Grain Store, Loubet’s “restaurant concept” which is vegetable-led and thoroughly delicious. I’d love to go, and try some of the things which take my fancy. Apparently “Grain Store Unleashed” is his opportunity to showcase a new style of dining where the customers are taken on a no-options tour of his current seasonal recipes, using the vegetable-led cooking at Grain Store and is a limited-run style thing. So, a bit pop-up, a bit “concept” – it’s the kind of thing which frankly turns me off a bit. But I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’m sold on the “no choice” thing. Or… I wasn’t.
We took Lovely One’s Dad and his Wonderful Girlfriend – who is charming and delightful and loves places which are funky and different. She was wowed by the interior, which takes a bit of the old-school vintage sideboards and tatty-looking chicness and welds it with fun menus in zany lettering and bright logos. I’m not sure I’m sold on it myself, I rather miss the elegant look of the old glass-walled dining room. The current look is a bit jamies italian meets Bill’s cafes and it feels a bit dated even though it’s a brand new opening. I’ll be honest, I was worried. It’s the kind of place I found a bit experimental and the idea of taking people I’m still getting to know there when they expected French Bistrot food was brave, to say the least.
So, straight up: this is not for the picky. This is experimental, interesting, different and not for everyone. There are strong flavours going on, and meat is a garnish rather than the main event. If you want choice, this is not great news. And no choice means that if, like Lovely One, you can’t eat fish, it means you get some pretty odd substitutes for the full deal – Lovely One got a large spoon of tofu instead of a Vegetal Oyster, and a piece of charred lettuce instead of the seat trout. I’ll be honest, I felt a bit sad for him.
The good news? It’s great value. You choose to have either 4, 6, or 8 courses (the last coming with two desserts) and we went for the 6 course option which was £34 a head – great, for what is essentially a mini-tasting menu. And you do get a choice of dessert (phew!).
The other key bonus is that it is bloody scrumptious. I mean, totally gorgeous. This was a relief as Lovely One, his Dad and Wonderful Girlfriend tucked in. You’ll have to forgive the slightly wobbly shots – I was trying for subtle (failed, didn’t I…).
The plates are small but perfectly-formed, with each having its own distinct feel. The obvious headliner is the Vegetal Oyster, a clever faux-shellfish dish which has earthy sweetness and smoky fish in spades. I’ll be honest though, I’m a simple soul and the asparagus with pomelo and brown butter was more up my alley. I’d have happily eaten platefuls of this for tea.
For me, the best dish was the one which I understand a few of the reviewers found quite boring. A bouncing fresh hen’s egg, cooked sous-vide so it’s super-soft and runny, served with a wedge of braised cabbage and a delicious little fondant charlotte potato. It shouldn’t really have worked, but it did. And bloody hell I need me more chicken-skin crisps in my life (or not, if I wish to avoid a heart attack at age 50).
By the time dessert rolled around the lighting was too poor for pictures which was a bloody shame, because they were utterly adorable. I feel I got off the worst, with a perfectly nice lemon and strawberry pot with rosemary crumble, which was just a fancy posset. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a posset, but I was hoping for a bit more wow. Which, incidentally, is what I’ve have gotten with the chocolate pie, a crisp shell filled with rich chocolate filling and a huge collar of chocolate around it. I could barely stop myself lunging across the table to steal some from Lovely One’s Dad. However, I felt it would be bad form on the third occasion we met to steal his food (next time, watch out!). Lovely One had a rather unusual white-chocolate-parsnip mousse which was really quite lovely and a really unusual way to dress up a neep. I’ll have to try experimenting at home…
Overall? I think that no-choice dining has its place in the London restaurant scene. It’s a fantastic way to try new things on a tasting menu at a really high standard and for a decent price. I’m not sure I’d take the Lovely One along without making sure he can have everything on the menu, though!