Tearing into Bar Boulud from rush hour traffic is like entering a time portal, or the Channel Tunnel itself. The suave atmosphere of cool composure and Parisian poise immediately soothes but feels surreal. The cock-eyed juggernaut that is Knightsbridge corner is unwieldly under construction, currently leaving the front of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park submerged beneath a camouflage of scaffolding and exterior decoration, stoically safeguarding its dignity given its unfortunate first impression. Reassuringly, Bar Boulud bears no resemblance to the cheerless appearance outside its doorstep. This does not exclude present company either, or to be specific, the restaurant’s curiously exotic clientele. Indeed, luxury hotel bars and restaurants are some of the best places for people watching. Outlanders in a foreign land, my dinner companion and I sip quietly in our Boulud banquet and observe Knightsbridge’s indigenous community: all faces pulled tight, their defences down, many a puckered lips wolfishly feasting on the ultimate in glorious French comfort food. Heralding the end of another frantic shopping day, or quickly guzzling down a pre-theatre Croque Monsieur perhaps? A recent interior face-lift appears to have worked, as the comfortable elegance of mahogany wood and brassiere-red leather seating, polished wooden floors and soft-hued globe lighting is just right, keeping the attention of customers firmly on their cuisine.
Back to that faultless French chivalry I mentioned before. Michelin-star chef Daniel Boulud’s popular bar-restaurant is an intricate well-oiled machine, and watching the balletic staff operate the floor was a masterful spectacle. Courses arrived at just the right time, silently and without fuss, glasses never running dry, plates appearing and disappearing without a lingering stray hand or an awkward sense of interruption. In fact, very little conversation at all, but always the right questions: “Toast or bread with your steak tartar?” “Would you like your burger cooked rare?” “Was your meat cooked to your specification?” These are all vital necessities, of course. The innate carnivore that I am, I could talk brawn all evening so I was thrilled to find there was also an in-house charcuterie counter, and went for a nosey. Fewer restaurants in London today celebrate the flesh in such a decorous way, as 2017 has seen meat go somewhat out of favour. My glamorous companion case in point, I relied on her to provide the foliage in the way of a surprisingly tasty ‘Chop Chop Salad’ of watermelon, Cos lettuce leaves and roasted cashew nuts with a spicy citrus dressing. A superior fried buttermilk soft shell crab was exceptionally light and devoured in its entirety, so I never regretted passing on the burgundy escargot.
The balance of ingredients in my steak tartar was spot-on and the texture of the grainy meat was good. The aforementioned burger, the ‘BB 24’, contained a triple-force threat of flesh: a rare beef steak patty, toppled by a braised hunk of beef short rib, crowned with a slab of velvety, golden foie gras, which ran into my hands upon application. All of this was washed down with a tremendously effective non-alcoholic cocktail named ‘Ringo,’ a divinely sweet/acidic pleasure inducer, which left the insides of my mouth watering. I left the hard drinking to the vegetation-eating glamazon, who tells me that her Negronis are good, but she enjoys my yuzu/matcha tea concoction also. The wine list discloses a penchant for France’s Rhône Valley and Burgundy regions and the restaurant houses an elegant cellar, although on this particular evening it only received a speculative glance. The burgers are so huge, one can barely lift their lips over the brioche (imagine the difficulty of all the Botox-babes at tables either side), but skipping desert is out of the question. We settle on homemade Speculoos ice cream, fluffy and rich, with accompanying peach and blackberry sorbets, both tickling-ly tart and fresh tasting. The coconut truffles, which came as an after-thought, were the crowning delight, an upmarket mini Bounty chocolate bar made with extravagantly bitter cocoa and a satisfying ice-crunch to them. This was a glittering feast, and coming up for air we found we had closed the restaurant.
Prices are a little high here, but the food is extravagantly good and a stellar reputation always proceeds you; Bar Boulud’s Manhattan counterpart, which faces New York’s Lincoln Centre, is internationally renowned and I’ve been to Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s eponymous, two-Michelin star restaurant in NYC, and it was really fantastic. In life you get what you pay for, and so with that we were graciously off, back to our considerably less-enthralling lives of flagging down Ubers and jumping over puddles, looking a little bit circumspect like the enshrouded Mandarin Oriental now disappearing in the distance.