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words Chris Zacharia
“The last thing the English cooked properly” goes the French proverb, “was Joan of Arc”. This motto always swims through my mind when I enter a French restaurant. It would be arrogant, if it wasn’t so totally justified by the bulletproof brilliance of French cuisine.
Like ‘Brazilian footballer’ or ‘Tibetan monk’, ‘French chef’ is one of those immortal unions of culture and profession which feel predestined, the nationality itself serving an honourable assurance of quality.
Yet despite being named after the legendary Marseillais seafood broth, Bouillabaisse is not actually a French restaurant. Founder Kurt Zdesar (whose formidable pedigree includes Hakkasan and Nobu) waltzed across the Mediterranean cherry-picking the very best dishes of coastal cuisines from Venice to the Greek islands, the English Channel to the Costa del Sol, to create a genuinely cosmopolitan seafood experience. The result is a wholly charming medley of everything that makes coastal restaurants great – and all in central London.
Thankfully, Zdesar and his team have ensured that the very basics are done properly. Bouillabaisse receive fresh fish and seafood every morning, which more often than not has been fished the evening before. The menu is, as you’d expect, seasonal, with market specials proclaimed from an old-fashioned billboard. And you can forget about tarted-up sauces and dressings – most of the fish here is cooked in a simple, rustic manner which allows its fresh tenderness to shine. It’s all very promising.
It’s a nice dining room too. Ersatz crate tabletops, hearty New England-style red and blue leather, wood beams and a judicious faith in mirrors creates a bright, welcoming space. Head waiter Stephane (I presume he was head waiter – if not, promote him immediately) seals the deal, gracefully chaperoning us from dish to dish, his manner lighthearted and knowledgeable.
With a menu full of heavyweights, choosing what to eat is pleasingly tricky. Aside from the titular dish, there’s all kinds of seafood and fish, with a Josper charcoal oven at hand to barbecue it all to perfection. Barnacles, a delicacy in northern Spain and damn hard to find in London, make an appearance. Herbridean langoustines, pink grouper and risotto nero with grilled octopus add to a star-studded line-up.
A sharing plate of vegetables, Iranian flatbread and Mediterranean dips, offered on a complimentary basis to all diners as an appetiser, is a classy touch. This isn’t a bowl of peanuts or just some bread and butter. This is lively, engaging, creative, firm evidence that Bouillabaisse put effort into the small things as well as the marquee dishes. A coriander and hummus dip lingers alluringly, the convincing freshness of the herb enhancing the paste. An anchovy taramasalata is, if anything, even better, with the creamy texture of a really good mayonnaise.
Langoustine and wild seabass carpaccio is so delicate a flavour that it’s liable to get lost, even in light seasoning. Here, it’s doused in a properly fine extra virgin olive oil. Undeniably, it smothers some of the flavours, but my word it’s moreish. Basil, piquillo peppers and wild rocket form an excellent supporting cast, their earthy flavours waxing and waning with those of the fish.
Stephane returns to bring us another dish. “One customer” he begins, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “recently told me that these were the very best crab cakes he has ever had. He was from the United States, and very knowledgeable about seafood. I hope you enjoy them as much as he did!” I don’t presume to know the American chap Stephane was quoting, but I can vouch for his judgement. These are no ordinary crab cakes. For a start, there’s no potato in these – presumably Zdesar understands that potato in almost any kind of cake is simply filler, a bad excuse covering for the absence of genuinely interesting ingredients. In the dearth of potato, the succulent crab meat takes centre-stage, lent a glistening richness by the addition of egg yolk. A parsley and garlic herb mayonnaise quickly becomes an indispensable accompaniment.
Barbecued brill arrives, skin on, seasoned with lemon, parsley and pepper. It does what any good fish dish must do: it transports us to the seaside. The understated seasoning allows the freshness to carry us off to some millstone cottage on the harbour of a Greek island. Sautéed spinach and garlic butter fries, diametrically opposed in taste and texture, provide alternate poles of flavour with which to balance the fish. The standard doesn’t drop. Tannu, Stephane’s recommended wine, is an unexpected organic white wine from Sicily, a blend of Grillo and Chardonnay which lingers convincingly in the mouth. Part of the wine list is devoted to ‘coastal’ wines, an intelligent nod to the restaurant’s core identity.
Dessert is a precarious enterprise for a seafood restaurant. It’s all too easy to give up and serve something unimaginative – after all, no-one goes to a fish place for dessert. Thankfully, the streak of brilliance identifiable from the very first complimentary nibbles runs through the puddings too. Strawberry scones, gleefully smashed and served with clotted cream, shortbread, raisins and pistachio, is a real ball-pit of a dessert, a cheerful medley of all things soft and crunchy.
Of course, the good thing about having fish for dinner is that it’s so light that you can go to town on your dessert. The Andoa 70% Chocolate Fondant has all of that molten richness you’d want, with silky salted caramel and a cooling scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Nothing groundbreaking, but impeccable nonetheless.
By the time the coffee comes, we’re reluctant to leave. Everything is so good here. Bouillabaisse Mayfair approach each element of being a restaurant with an unflinching devotion to excellence; finding fault is so tricky that you just have to give in and admit they’re doing things right. I don’t know about the English, but the last thing Bouillabaisse cooked properly was my dinner. And I’m really glad they did.