The restaurant is below street level: It’s noisy and hot. Sit in the windowless back room and you can feel for the chefs in the heat of the kitchen, especially the older guy, wearing spectacles and hard at work.
That will be Daniel Boulud, 55, the French-born New York restaurateur who is a one-man challenge to the supremacy of London as a dining destination. He came, he saw, and now he has conquered.
Bar Boulud knocks the socks off most openings in the past 18 months and might prove the precursor to a wave of New York imports, with Balthazar and Spotted Pig leading the charge. My hope is that Danny Meyer (Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park etc.) will risk a venue away from the city that is his home.
Boulud’s formula is simple enough: French charcuterie and seasonal bistro-style cooking with a reasonably priced wine list, friendly service and a Manhattan buzz. This simplicity doesn’t represent a lack of ambition. In seeking to be the best at what it does, Bar Boulud is a match for any London restaurant. It’s the point where fine dining meets fun dining.
There are two stars of the show: the charcuterie and the burgers. The charcuterie at Bar Boulud (under the direction of Gilles Verot, of Paris) alone would be reason enough to eat in this establishment.
The options include Tourte de Canard -- duck, foie gras and figs in the lightest of pastry crusts -- and a terrine of slow-cooked, spiced leg of lamb, aubergine and sweet potato. Then there’s the slow-braised beef cheek with onion confit and pistachio. The solution is the charcuterie selection at 14 pounds ($20), or 28 pounds for a large board.
It would also be a shame to miss out on the sausages, which include the Boudin Blanc (truffled white sausage -- light with a crispy skin -- and mashed potato) and the Thai, a spicy number served with hot sauce and a green papaya salad.
For me, Bar Boulud is mainly about the burgers, of which there are currently three: the Yankee, the Piggie and the Frenchie. (The foie gras burger created in New York at DB Bistro Moderne is set to show up on Sundays next month.) The patties are made with chuck and brisket -- with 20 percent fat -- and are as juicy and gorgeous as any I’ve tried in London.
They’re served in brioche buns topped with sesame (Yankee), cheddar (Piggie) or black peppercorns (Frenchie). All are spectacular and my favorite is the Frenchie because the Morbier cheese is so distinctive. The other two -- both developed at DBGB in New York -- feature iceberg lettuce, sweet onion and cheddar (Yankee) and barbecue pulled pork and green-chili mayonnaise (Piggie). They are served with perfectly crispy French fries, made from Maris Piper potatoes.
The prices at Bar Boulud are competitive. The Frenchie costs 13.50 pounds, for example, and the set lunch last week included a beautiful chilled pea soup with rosemary cream; the Yankee burger; and exotic fruits for only 20 pounds. Talk about a Happy Meal; I was wreathed in smiles.
The team is strong. Michael Lawrence, who was general manager at Daniel in New York for years, has been overseeing the operation in its opening weeks, while the general manager is Stephen Macintosh, formerly of the Wolseley. The chef is Dean Yasharian, another veteran of Daniel, who previously headed the kitchen at Bar Boulud in New York.
This corner of London is becoming a gourmet destination. Marcus Wareing is nearby, Heston Blumenthal will open upstairs at the Mandarin Oriental later in the year and Pierre Koffmann enters the Berkeley Hotel with Koffmann’s next month.
I’m proud to count Koffmann as a regular dining companion and he came along with me for lunch to check out the opposition. His verdict? “The charcuterie were all brilliant. I really enjoyed the burger, too.”
Bar Boulud isn’t perfect. A main of grilled sea bass was nothing to write home about and the desserts are not adventurous. Not everyone likes the room -- though I enjoy Adam Tihany’s design -- and few would choose to eat underground.
But order a fine Bloody Mary and a burger, then retire to the bar after dinner for a White Cosmopolitan and you may feel that this imperfect eatery is close to perfection at its price level. I do, and that’s why I’m awarding it four stars.
Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA. Tel. +44-20-7201-3899 or click on http://tinyurl.com/3353yqv.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Main courses cost 12 pounds to 22 pounds.
Sound level? Noisy. Even at lunch, it passed 80 decibels.
Inside tip? Sit at the back, with a view on the kitchen.
Special feature? The charcuterie and the burgers.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? I wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t like it.
What the Stars Mean **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. 0 (no stars) Poor.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)