As Bibendum in west London celebrates 21 years in the business, Emily Manson goes back to find out the secrets of its success
Slick is the word best used to describe Bibendum. After more than two decades in the game and celebrating its 21st birthday this month, this iconic London restaurant certainly knows the drill.
Many people will recognise the building, with its jolly, tyre-surrounded man set in stained glass atop the lavish art deco exterior. Originally the British headquarters of the Michelin tyre company, it was taken over by Terence Conran, Michael Hamlyn and Simon Hopkinson in 1987 and the restaurant still plays on this theme, with monogrammed Champagne flutes, butter dishes with ceramic models of the Michelin man and even vases reflecting his layered tyre torso.
Matthew Harris joined the opening team as a chef de partie and worked his way up, taking the top job 12 years ago. Like its head chef, some of Bibendum's dishes have been on the menu since day one.
There's a steady assurance evident in the menu, which features haddock and chips (£17.50) alongside classic French haute cuisine such as tournedos of veal (£26.50) and poulet de Bresse (£49 for two) and Harris isn't afraid to leave in the favourites.
"There are some classics that can't be improved upon like the steak au poivre and they stay on the menu, but other dishes change regularly," he says. "Ideas develop throughout the seasons as new produce comes in, things spring to mind."
Crispy frogs' legs (£18.50) are served with cèpes coated in a red wine meat reduction. The garlicky mushrooms are offset by a "V" of crisp fried bread dipped in parsley. Lightly grilled smoked eel (£14) is served with sautéd potato gnocchi and topped with dill, complementing the eel's juicy rich sweetness.
A lighter starter of crab, artichoke and tomato vinaigrette (£15) was served with a concassé of tomatoes and freshly prepared artichoke providing that slightly grainy texture as a foil to the flakes of white crab meat piled on top. There's no mayonnaise here, just a light olive oil-based vinaigrette, dabs of a dressing made from the brown crab meat and a few herbs, leaving a lively fresh taste on the palate.
Fillet steak au poivre (£27.50) is a Scotch fillet flambéd in brandy with a meat jus that's finished with butter. For the "au poivre", Harris uses a mix of black peppercorns and white pepper pressed into the top of the steak at the last minute, rather than the more usual creamy peppercorn sauce.
"The pepper crust is put on just before cooking and the flavour and all the juices from the steak then get used for the sauce, which is made in the same pan," he explains.
Desserts feature the British classic Sussex pond pudding (£8) - a suet pastry encasing a whole lemon chopped up and coated in butter and brown sugar. The bitter lemon rind softens to a marmaladey sweet and sourness which cuts through the pastry, preventing it from becoming too cloying.
But the dishes don't tell the whole tale - it's the service that brings the whole experience together. Maître d' Karim Miftah has been at Bibendum for 17 years, while many of his team have also been there for more than a decade, which ensures that the kitchen's slick confidence continues into the restaurant, treading that fine line between buzzy eaterie and meticulous precision.
What's on the menu
- Escargots de Bourgogne, £19.50
- Six Colchester Oysters, £21
- Sauté of frogs' legs with cèpes, garlic and parsley, £18.50
- Warm smoked eel with potato gnocchi, crisp pancetta and dill, £14
- Roast grouse with liver, croûte, bread sauce and game chips, £27.50
- Fillet steak au poivre, £27.50
- Poulet de Bresse à l'estragon, £49 for two
- Sauté rabbit with boudin noir, apples and calvados, £21
- Sussex pond pudding with Jersey cream, £8
- Warm butter-poached pear with coffee ice-cream and chocolate mousse, £9
- Crème brûlée, £8
- Blackcurrant and port jelly with madeleines and crème chantilly, £9
• Bibendum, Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD, Tel: 020 7581 5817 www.bibendum.co.uk