Bob Bob Ricard reminds me why I rate restaurant reviewers Jay Rayner, Marina O’Loughlin and Fay Maschler quite highly but have absolutely nooo time for critics like A A Gill (just allowing his name to sully my blog makes me feel dirty;). His ilk strive so hard to be entertaining that their default mode seems to be disdain, mockery and posturing; they are far too jaded and world-weary to find fun in the over-the-top flamboyancy of places like Bob Bob Ricard. And god forbid they stop and think about what their readers might actually enjoy – I reckon some of them might quite like to indulge in a little pomp and circumstance on a night out now and again!
(And to the two critics who’ve renamed Russian owner Leonid to Sergei: which one of you was so lazy they copied the details from the other’s review and which of you puts your hand up to the original sloppy journalism?)
These days, I turn less to the words of restaurant critics when looking for the low-down on where’s good for food than I do to food bloggers and twitter (though when I do seek out reviews from the pros, Rayner and O’Loughlin are usually the first I check). And twitter is also where I’ve forged a wonderful, warm network of food loving friends – fellow food bloggers, industry PRs, restaurateurs and chefs, food journalists and cookery book authors, catering company owners, cheese and fish mongers, food producers and, of course, home cooks!
This online community of London foodlovers is also how I became involved in the Blaggers Banquet charity fundraiser and how I came to engage with Leonid Shutov, one of the owners of Bob Bob Ricard. We corresponded by email and chatted on the phone a number of times about the auction prize BBR kindly donated. I confess, until then I’d never heard of BBR but was delighted to put the generous prize into our auction and even more delighted to see how much it raised! My interest in BBR was definitely piqued!
And when Leonid mentioned some high-end vodkas he was tasting and I replied (vodka being the only spirit I’ll drink given my dislike for gin, whisky, brandy…) he suggested I get myself over to BBR and sample a few! Who am I to turn down that kind of invitation?
Although I’m currently on holiday between contracts, I did agree to deliver a single day’s training as a favour for a long-term client. I knew it would be a frustrating day so it seemed an ideal evening to pop into BBR for dinner and drinks. The day was even more exasperating than I’d imagined possible so I was quite the pressure keg by the time I met up with Pete at Picadilly Circus!
We arrived at BBR just after 5pm; unsurprisingly, we were the first customers of the evening, though the place became pretty busy by the time we left, and that on the second Tuesday of January!
Shown to one of the booths by our pink-coated waiter, Salvatore, we settled in and gawped at the décor – old world decadence with a sprinkling of glitz and a large dollop of kitsch! I loved the dark turquoise leather banquettes reminiscent of first class train travel in times gone by, the plush velvet curtains on little gold curtain poles, the regal yet futuristuc bronzey-gold chandeliers, the gorgeous Japanese book binding paper used to paper walls and ceilings with flying birds and tie dye circles, the resplendent bevelled mirrors and the beautifully patterned granite and marble table tops and a hundred other little details that contributed to the flamboyant whole.
I used to visit the site regularly in it’s (earlier) Circus days so the contrast between that modern, minimalist look and the current extravagance was staggering!
Moments later, Leonid joined us and we ordered aperitifs. Pete went for the house signature pink rhubarb G&T. Not normally a big gin drinker, or a fan of girlie drinks he really liked it. I had the pear bellini, a lovely variation on the peach original.
After slaking our thirst we took a quick tour around the restaurant including the downstairs bar. It’s red colour scheme and narrow room layout evokes even more forcibly the hey days of the Orient Express. Luxurious fittings, more private nook and cranny booths with extra fold-down seats and lots of glitz and glamour. It’s open to restaurant diners and members, but off limits if you’re neither.
The tour was followed swiftly by the voddie session! Leonid ordered a selection of Russian starters and, of course, the vodka! Salvatore poured us shots of Kauffman Special Vintage 2006, chilled to –18°C – chilling the vodka makes it more about drinking it than inhaling the fumes of alcohol beforehand. Leonid explained how best to drink it: ready a forkful of food, down the shot in one, and immediately eat the forkful.
Leonid explained that vodka “brings out and amplifies the flavours of the food but does not change them. Unlike wine, neat vodka cannot be properly enjoyed on it’s own, it needs food to complete the experience!”
We started with the jellied ox tongue with horseradish cream. I liked the textures of the meaty tongue against the wobbling jelly and the horseradish gave it a nice kick. And certainly the flavours sang out, whether that was the vodka or not I’m not sure, but I rather liked downing a shot before each mouthful!
Our second shots were Imperia by Russian Standard. This vodka has a more distinct grain flavour, perhaps less completely distilled than the other, perhaps with the taste of grain deliberately added back to it. Leonid described how some vodka producers take rye bread, toast it, soak the toast in water to create an essence of the flavour and mix this into the vodka to add in just a hint of the grains from which it’s made!
With these shots we tried the russian herring, cured with salt rather than the sweeter cures more common in Scandinavian versions, and served with tiny rings of raw red onion. Powerfully fishy and packing a hefty salt punch, we swiftly followed each mouthful of herring with a bite of boiled royal kidney potatoes – the naturally buttery flesh instantly cut through the saltiness.
As both Pete and I preferred the Kauffman, it was shot after shot of this vodka that prefaced the remaining ox tongue and herring as well as other dishes.
The malosol cucumber is brined in dill, sea salt, horseradish, garlic and blackcurrant leaves (a new one on me) for just 24 hours to create this refreshing pickle that is at once fresh cucumber and crunchy pickle. Very more-ish!
Not really into our champagne we were nonetheless able to watch the champagne call button in action, as Leonid commandeered it to call for yet more vodka. It worked!
The star of the selection was undoubtedly the meat pelmeni with white vinegar and sour cream. These very traditional dumplings are filled with a pork, beef and raw onion and, in Russia, they are usually made in bulk and frozen. They were served with a generous pot of sour cream and another of white vinegar, the perfect accompaniments. Not unlike chinese steamed dumplings but without the ginger, chives and other ingredients that are often included. I definitely ate the lion’s share of these, each one with a very generous dollop of the sour cream.
One last treat was in store and that was salo served on rye bread. Salo is cured pork lard, known in Italian as lardo di Colonnata (named for a Tuscan village where it’s produced). As the Tuscan version is virtually the same as the Russian, BBR source theirs from Italy. Salty, fatty pork with the rich rye taste is another dish that we found worked very well with vodka!
Our conversations were many, varied and fascinating but when I took a trip down memory lane (and tested out my one remaining phrase of Russian) to relate an extremely vodka-fuelled trip to the Ukraine and another, a couple of years later, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, equally vodka-heavy it was time for Leonid to showcase quite how different our premium vodkas were to the Stoli of those long-ago years. A bottle of Stolichnaya was duly brought out, chilled as the others had been. Cough! Splutter! Cough! Really, I coughed a lot. 20+ years makes it easy to forget quite how rough and raw Stoli is and certainly made us appreciate the Kauffman we quickly retreated back to even more!
Now, you might be forgiven for assuming, based on the above, that BBR is a Russian restaurant. Actually, the eclectic all-day menu is mainly British and the handful of Russian dishes have been added to complement the vodka and as a nod to Leonid’s heritage.
Finally picking up the menu (with sections for cocktails and shakes, vodka, caviar and russian snacks, starters and soups, mains and sides, desserts and afternoon teas) we ordered yet more food.
Torn between a number of starters, Leonid steered me towards the Scottish langoustine cocktail. My face dropped as Salvatore stepped in to tell me they didn’t have any langoustine today but my smile returned in an instant when he continued by proposing that they make it for me with lobster instead. Leonid confided that supplies of good quality lobster are actually easier to secure than langoustine so this is the norm rather than the exception! Given that the price stays the same, who am I to argue? I love lobster meat and but don’t have it often. And it was good – a generous portion of moist, firm meat on a bed of properly crunchy lettuce smothered in an indulgent marie rose sauce.
Pete went for the rabbit, foie gras and date terrine. The richness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the rabbit and the sweetness of the date came together to create a balanced dish; and a combination we’d not encountered before. Very nice!
Leonid ordered the BBR beef tea soup, a proper Victorian restorative! In his bowl were raw pieces of beef, a poached quail’s egg and alphabetti spaghetti. In an amusing touch, the only letters provided are B and R but I didn’t check whether the Bs were twice as many as the Rs! The soup is served in a silver teapot to be poured over the beef, egg and pasta. A little bit of ceremony can be a fun thing now and again; I rather liked it!
We were on our own for the mains – running a restaurant does require some work, after all. Having asked Leonid about their most popular dishes I duly ordered the chicken kiev. Pete opted for the pork cheeks braised in port.
The kiev was beautifully cooked: tender moist chicken, a crunchy bread-crumbed exterior and juice garlic butter inside. Although the flavour of the garlic came through perfectly well, I’d have liked more garlic butter, so a little flooded out onto my plate as I cut into the chicken. Pete, on the other hand, was of the “less is more” camp. What really made me grin whilst eating this dish was the sweetcorn and potato mash. So creamy, it was the essence of sweetcorn and I completely adored it!
And yet, the pork cheeks in port were even better! Neither of us had eaten pork cheeks before and were bowled over by their tenderness. We were also surprised to find the cheeks more beefy than porky, perhaps because they are more like red meat than the more familiar cuts of pork? The rich, full-bodied port sauce was perfect and the kitchen didn’t stint on it either. Served with carrots and mash, this is one of the dishes I’ve been dreaming of ever since!
With his pork cheeks, Pete had a glass of wine, drawing on our waiter’s advice. I’d heard about BBR’s wine list as it caused quite a stir in the industry; such that even a non wine-drinker like me had heard of it. The reason is simple – unlike most premier restaurants BBR have capped the mark-up they put on the price of any bottle of wine, no matter how premium, to £50. This is, explains Leonid in the wine menu, plenty to cover the cost of selecting, sourcing, storing and serving the wines and provide a modest profit. This means that BBR undercut many top restaurants by hundreds of pounds on some bottles, making them a popular destination for those who like to appreciate top class wines when dining out. We don’t fall into that category, but luckily wines start at £5.50 a glass and £19.25 a bottle for whites and reds and there are a number of choices coming in at less than £30 a bottle.
By this stage, as you can imagine, we were pretty full! But, in the name of research, curiosity or just flat-out greed, we took a look at the dessert menu. And that was our downfall; we could not resist! Torn between the warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream, the striped ‘strawberries & cream’ soufflé, the vanilla, salted caramel and valrhona chocolate ice-cream and the bramley and cox apple jelly with cream and shortbread we compromised and ordered the apple jelly to share. And two BBR chocolate truffles as well.
Well, the chocolates, one raspberry and one lime and mint, were perfectly nice. But it was the jelly that stole the show. You’d think the most appley thing you could eat would be an apple, wouldn’t you? But no, I think it could be this jelly, which was the very essence of British apples. The sweet cream and two crisped apple slices were lovely on the side. And the shortbread rounds were the shortest shortbread I’ve come across; given how they crumbled the moment you put them in your mouth, I can’t imagine the delicate touch needed to keep them in one piece during baking and service!
During dessert, Leonid returned and brought with him his friend and business partner Richard. (Incase you’re wondering, Ricard is Leonid’s piss-take nickname for Richard and Bob is Richard’s nickname for Leonid. Bob’s name features twice in the restaurant name because he stumped up two thirds of the money). As simple as that!
Queue lots more fun chatting and laughter, and nosey questions about how the pair met, how they conquered Russian PR and how they came to open a restaurant. And all kinds of random other stuff. And the slightly surprising discovery of a mutual fondness for penguins, which may or may not have been Richard pulling my leg, though he did seem to know more about penguins in the Falkland Islands than most people I’ve met!
Truly, we had a really lovely evening.
I had been a little nervous beforehand, not about meeting Leonid nor about the vodka sampling but about the food. I’d not googled in advance for food blog posts and restaurant reviews, nor had I heard much mention of the food in the food twittersphere and I worried that this might mean it would be disappointing, mediocre at best. And if it had been, I’d not have reported otherwise. So, imagine my delight (and relief) when we not only had great fun with our hosts but also had an unexpectedly fantastic dinner as well!
Of course, I googled for reviews as soon as I got home and discovered again why I rate Rayner, O’Loughlin and Maschler – despite sampling the best of what London has to offer and being no strangers to luxurious surroundings, good food and excellent service, they were able to recognise what BBR offers – a strong serving of tradition, a hefty dose of the theatrical and great eating and drinking!
I loved Circus (excluding the last few years) and I love it’s successor even more. In a world of short-lived restaurant openings, long live Bob Bob Ricard!