Dining at Boulestin on London's St. James's Street offers two kinds of nostalgia: the kind dished up by the proprietor (Joel Kissin, who once worked with Terence Conran to build a major group of restaurants including the gorgeous Bibendum), and the kind Jackie and I brought along with us. The second lies in the restaurant's location. When visiting London, we used to eat from time to time at a place on the same site: l'Oranger, through whose kitchen now-famous chefs like Angela Hartnett and Marcus Wareing passed. We liked it a lot, and picked up one or two cooking tips there too.
The more broadly shared nostalgia is generated by the restaurant's name and menu: From the 1920s to the 1940s, X. (for Xavier) Marcel Boulestin was an evangelist of French cooking among the benighted British. He did interior design, wrote books, demonstrated cooking on radio and, amazingly, on television (in the late 1930s, before there really was television) and opened a couple of restaurants, the last of which closed only in 1994, decades after the man's death.
But the name Boulestin still resonates. Its use here, I think, is intended to suggest a certain old-school sort of French cooking and a certain know-how in the kitchen and dining room. It delivers on both in a cleanly decorated but not spare dining room (there is also café seating up front near the bar; you can get breakfast there), with a lofty sky-lit ceiling, pretty moldings and plasterwork, apposite art work and comfortable banquettes - plus a handful of tables in an elegant, quiet courtyard. The indoor dining room is quiet too: No music (hooray!); just the buzz of conversation.
The menu touches many classic-French-restaurant buttons, as a whole raft of other recently opened London restaurants do. It lies somewhere between the grande brasserie facsimile menu at the vast Brasserie Zédel and the more creative variations on familiar dishes at Brasserie Chavot (both of which I like a lot, each in its way): At Boulestin, the menu reads classic but dishes have a lighter (but not too light) touch by the chef, Andrew Woolford.
Our shared starter was jambon persillé, with marked cured pork flavor (a heavier cure than some found in France - which is to the good), a tasty gelée surrounded the pieces of pork, with points of bright parsley, though I'd have preferred more of that herb in every bite. Celery-root remoulade that really tasted of its main ingredient (not a universal state of affairs) and cornichons were the harmonious accompaniments.
This was the first night of our trip, so I couldn't fail to order grouse, which was in season. It was served in the English manner (just seasoned and roasted, with smooth, elegantly spiced bread sauce and waffle-cut potato chips). It was cooked spot-on rare-medium-rare and was notably gamey with the occasional pocket of bitterness sometimes found in grouse: a degree of aging that is an English rather than a French preference. It was presented whole, but with the hip joints popped, so it was easy enough to eat.
Calf's liver was sliced thin and char grilled; it was cooked just right and was carefully trimmed. It came with thin, crisp (but not incinerated) bacon, potatoes sautéed with onions, and a simple jus.
The meal ended with a perfect dessert, and I mean perfect. It was Sauternes custard with prunes in Armagnac. While holding is shape, the custard was implausibly soft - it was like eating crème anglaise with a spoon (a lovely thing to do).
We drank English wine from the Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall: only proper in a restaurant dedicated to a man whose mission was to show the English the gastronomic light.
For good or for ill, the area around St. James's Street and Pall Mall is in for a major upgrade by Her Majesty the Landlady as older shops' leases come to an end. In its low-key way, Boulestin is going to be a good neighbor on the block, and one well worth visiting when you're in the area.
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Finding supper after an evening performance at London's Barbican Centre has always seemed a bit of a puzzle. In fact, the center is less remote than it feels, and the puzzle can be solved by walking to the busy Smithfield Market area or eastward to a restaurant such as l'Anima (very good, but not really geared to post-theater reservations). But for the past year and a bit there's been a viable option that's a 30-second walk from the center's Silk Street exit and that will welcome you as late as 11 o'clock.
The Jugged Hare, in an eighteenth-century building that was once a brewery-cum-tavern, offers an impossibly noisy pub scene up front, but a pleasantly buzzy back-room restaurant. The night we were there, fellow diners included some of the performers we'd just seen, drinking well-deserved Champagne. Service is snappy, friendly and intelligent. Portions are big: Jackie ordered two appetizers - tender grilled ox heart with a celery-root salad; then little "Manx queenie" scallops sautéed with chorizo and plenty of garlic - and was more than sated. I had a so-called snack portion of three excellent wild boar croquettes, perfectly seasoned and perfectly juicy (with an irrelevant apple-y sauce), plus a full size main course, which was four generous slices of roast leg of Tamworth pork with a delicious stuffing of venison and boar. The meat was a little tight in texture -- it had not rested long enough before slicing (or had just possibly been reheated) -- but was flavorful, and the stuffing was terrific: perfect, interesting seasoning and a mild but detectable game flavor. Vivid and accurate seasoning, in fact, was a constant here. Our champagne gelatin dessert tasted good but was far too firmly gelled.
The restaurant offers game in season. The night we were there it was partridge and grouse; check the website for updates and note that, yes, jugged hare is indeed available.
Especially if you're in the area, either for a concert or for any other reason, this is an ideal choice for a hearty, consistently tasty supper. And it solves that post-Barbican puzzle very neatly indeed.
Boulestin. 5 St. James's Street, London SW1A 1EF; +44 (0)20 7930 2030; www.boulestin.com; firstname.lastname@example.org. Dinner for two, about £110 ($180) including a bottle of that good English wine.
The Jugged Hare. 49 Chiswell Street, London EC1Y 4SA; +44 (0)20 7614 0134; www.thejuggedhare.com; email@example.com. Dinner for two, about £90 ($145), including a carafe of interesting wine (a white Sangiovese).