Nunc est bibendum

Bibendum surprises on many fronts. Surprise, because I did not come to it with high expectations yet left delighted and wondering why people aren’t queuing around the corner to get in.

Perhaps Bibendum’s past is warping present perceptions. Bibendum – even under its former name, Haggers – never really took off.

The stories about bad dining experiences were legion. There was a feeling abroad that Haggers/Bibendum had the right look, the right aspirations and an OK menu, but failed to deliver:

Good one night, bad the next. This was reinforced on the night of this review, when we were one of just three tables scattered around the large, hushed room.

There are few sights as emphatically damning as an empty restaurant.

Which, once you dine at Bibendum, is wholly inexplicable.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The menu is a grab bag of late 90s favourites. It is safe food in the east meets west vernacular and cooked marvellously well: a repertoire which allows the chef to showcase good technical skills and a flair for flavour.

In fact, my companion and I were surprised by the length of flavour achieved with two of the dishes and with the obvious care which had gone into some of the reduction sauces.

Owner and chef Opel Khan has trained under the Roux brothers, and it shows.

My pan grilled chicken livers served with chick peas, roast pepper and rocket ($14.00) sounded deceptively simple.

The bed of chick peas was cooked al dente. Four pan-seared chicken livers lay atop this small mound. The whole was brought together with extra virgin olive oil.

The livers were pink and mushy on the inside – just as they should be – and slightly caramelised on the outside.

The chick peas were tossed with the rocket, giving the dish a peppery foundation. Restrained excellence.

The other entrée, ravioli of shredded duck leg served with horseradish pesto and port wine duck consommé ($15.00) comprised a handful of large, slippery ravioli swimming in a unctuous sauce strong with the herbal flavours of Chinese rice wine, mirin and light soy. The duck had been marinated and roasted.

The sauce deserves a mention. It was constructed on a clear broth made of equal parts duck consommé and tomato consommé.

This is where Khan’s classical French training kicks in. These clear reductions need time – a couple of days in some cases – to develop their flavour, helped along with a strong dose of classical technique.

The result was a sauce deeper than Albert Camus’ Caligula and longer than a wet week. Truly marvellous.

The main course tandoori chicken breast layered with paratha bread served with coconut and coriander coulis ($22.00) was also a triumph of classical technique and Asian sensibilities.

As the explanation suggests, the chicken was lightly marinated in tandoor spices before being flash roasted.

The home made paratha was pan cooked and then plated up on a bed of pink eyes tossed with coriander and the lightest of coconut curry sauces.

The roast breast and leg of barbecue duck with caramalised pear and port wine reduction ($26.00) was again an exemplar of classical European technique and Asian produce.

The duck had been marinated with dark spices – star anise, honey, soy – then sealed in a very hot pan and oven roasted crisp. Served with potatoes, green beans and caramelised pear, it was simple and delicious. The port wine reduction was slippery, pungent and excellent.

Desserts, like bread, are a great benchmark by which to judge a chef’s attention to detail. (Incidently the small doughy bread rolls served at Bibendum are the best I’ve had in years).

A pudding of chocolate ganache served with a strawberry jelly ($10.00) was by any measure an extraordinary exposition of the chef’s art.

Such a dish is not difficult to cook. It’s just that one rarely sees so much effort put into a small pud.

The ganache – a chocolate and cream based paste, most often used for glazing rich cakes – was placed in a cylindrical mould to set; on top of which was poured the pinkest of fine jellies made by gently macerating cut strawberries over a bain marie and then tying the slurry in cheesecloth to catch the pure, clear strawberry juice drip by drip over twenty-four hours.

The juice was then jellied to complete the dessert. Unbelievable flavour! On the plate, the unmoulded pud sat on its chocolate base like a slightly wobbly pink top hat.

A small almond apple tart ($9.00) was a more conventional offering made on short crust pastry and based on a frangipani. It was accompanied with a vanilla bean ice cream.

The menu is small. Six entrées, six mains and two pasta dishes. It caters for most tastes with seafood, chicken, game, beef and vegetarian offerings.

Opel Khan is soon to put on a five course degustation menu. Curiously, this menu features a selected wine from Little River Wines with each of the five courses.

His food is of a standard which deserves fine wine and, while the Little River product has its place in the world, perhaps the food would be better served by a selection from a producer of greater note. You can, of course, make your own wine selection from the list.

Such a peculiar food and wine matching decision is a pointer to the only glaring weakness at Bibendum, its cellar. The wine list is small – which of itself is not a problem – but difficult to choose from.

It is not particularly structured toward the food and has little direction. Diners really do care about wine in this town, and a good wine list would do wonders for Bibendum.

One positive is that the cellar has an above average selection of champagnes and sparklings.

Wine aside, Bibendum is worth a visit for many reasons. The room is slinky and voluptuously lit. The furniture is great, the space enticing. The bar is beautiful. Uplit through a marble top, it exudes a soft light that makes any woman look like an eighteen year old (Girls, for the price of a Campari soda you can lounge at the bar and look as if you’ve been ‘refreshed’ by a top surgeon).

Given these reasons and the general excellence of the food and service, I cannot understand why this place isn’t chocker with jolly baby boomers and western suburbs jeunesse dorée.

My dining pal – a publisher with style to burn, a Mumm habit and a fetching Sloane Square patois – agreed that were Bibendum in London, it would be the Next Big Thing, with punters in jewels, JP Todds, bespoke suits and Hackett moleskins ten deep at the bar. (Actually there is a Bibendum in London but that’s another story).

Perhaps, Bibendum’s time is nigh. In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner kept muttering mystically: “They’ll come. They’ll come”. And, of course, eventually they did.

Given its excellence and ambience, it’s difficult to understand why the pilgrims aren’t wending their way to Bibendum in a like manner. Perhaps with a better wine list, they too will come.

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