You really have to know where you’re going to find Bistrotheque – it’s down a most unlikely street, opposite the vast blank wall of a cash-and-carry, and has no sign. Word of mouth and some excellent reviews mean that plenty of people have found it, though, and very good it is too.
There are various sections – the wildly camp Napoleon bar downstairs, with tables splling out into the little outside lobby area, the Cabaret room (check the Bistrotheque website for details) and a large main dining room and smaller Oak room upstairs for dining. Chef Tom Collins has been here since the opening in 2004 and mixes french bistro and modern english cooking great effect.
The whitewashed walls, high ceiling and huge windows in the main dining room are very industrial chic but any coldness is rapidly dispelled by our charming waiter Stephen, who also has a good knowledge of the dishes. He gets us in the mood with a couple of the best bread rolls I’ve ever tasted: they were still warm and I could have set to and made a meal of them. Always a good sign when the kitchen turns out bread of that standard.
Starters (from £5.50 for soup of the day to £11 for half a dozen rock oysters) included steak tartare, foie gras poached in red wine with toasted sourdough bread and grilled razor clams (how often do you see those on an English menu?) with chorizo and broad beans. Charcuterie with apple remoulade (£7.50) was delicious and beautifully presented on a wooden board; the various types of salami fresh and tender and the apple a good sharp foil. Confit rabbit leg was also great – much daintier than it can be in France, meltingly tender with tasty mushrooms.
Main courses offer a similar range of choice, from a humble but tempting cheeseburger with caramelised red onion and pancetta (£11.50) to a rib-eye steak with Roquefort and garlic butter (£22.50), with options for meat, fish and vegetarian dishes in between. I’m not a vegetarian but do love my veg, so I chose smoked aubergine, courgettes, brie, pine nuts and chickpeas (£14.50) – it sounded a good mixture but sadly, it was the one disappointment of the meal. The various ingredients in little piles weren’t particularly interesting and it just didn’t pull together into a dish. However fish and chips with pea purée and tartare sauce was excellent.
The puddings (£5 – £7) sound fantastic but we didn’t make it that far on this occasion. I need to come back to try honey and thyme roast peaches with mascarpone cheese… or chocolate and almond cake… or the classic creme brulée.
The wine list showcases mainly French regional wines at very reasonable prices, starting at £14.50 per bottle; there are also good-sounding cocktails (including the irresistible Camp’Arry – Campari grapefruit juice and prosecco – for £7) that would go down particularly well for Sunday brunch.
I will be back, not just for the puddings (though they are calling to me) but because this was a really enjoyable experience. The dining room is airy and spacious, with plenty of room for private conversations, and the food is imaginative and decent value for money. It’s probably just as well it’s not in an obvious place or you’d never get a table.