I have always been a huge fan of the Hotel du Vin chain. As a hospitality brand, I think they are one of the best boutique companies out there: consistent, interesting locations, excellent service and with a great passion for food and wine. As a student in Bristol, the highlight of my weekend would be an expertly-mixed Bloody Mary and the newspapers on a lazy Sunday morning, perhaps followed by a leisurely lunch, depending on how flush I felt. As I put my student days behind me, the hotels became my short break destination of choice, always including a wine-led meal in the adjoining bistro. I think I’ve stayed in every single one of the UK properties, with the exception of Harrogate, which is definitely next on my list.
I was intrigued when I heard the group was launching a standalone restaurant brand. A brave move in these uncertain times. There are now two Bistro du Vin outlets, the first one being in Clerkenwell, the second on Dean Street, right in the heart of bustling, crazy Soho. While London is devoid of HduV hotels, many Londoners will recognise the brand from their search for a weekend away from the Capital.
As we elbowed our way through the throngs of tourists and gawpers lining the streets and pouring out of packed bars and restaurants, I was reminded of why I avoid Soho, and pretty much most of Central London, on a Saturday night. Thankfully though, in the midst of the madness, Bistro du Vin is a haven of calm and cool. No sooner than our feet had crossed the threshold, we were whisked to the bar by the smiley hostess and I began to relax. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of sitting at a bar: the stools are almost always uncomfortable and I feel awkward and ungainly, with nowhere to put my feet or my handbag. Not so here, though, thanks to the luxuriously upholstered armchairs that are the perfect height from which to reach the bar. I imagine, as the restaurant becomes more and more busy (as it will undoubtedly do very quickly), the bar will be full of people who are unable to get a table, eating at the bar instead. Indeed, next to me and my Champagne were two immaculately dressed women, tucking into a waistband-busting array of dishes, liberally topping up their large wine glasses and gossiping as they ate.
We sipped the delicious house Champagne and listened to the enthusiastic barmen discussing the intricacies and merits of various wine grapes, whilst taking in the look of the place. The decor is very ‘now’ – that clubby, understated, grown-up style of design, with a focus on original artworks of all genres. However, despite the newness, these surroundings, its staff and the menu – such is the strength of the brand – screamed that we couldn’t have been anywhere other than a Du Vin property. And that’s not a criticism. There’s something very comforting about that, indeed.
We were worried, initially, that a du Vin restaurant plonked into a location away from a hotel would sit strangely. But, already, with expectations exceeded thanks to the feel of the menu, the warmth of the staff and the mature vibe, we were hoping that the food could live up to the hype. The menu definitely impressed and represented good value for money. It’s not cheap, but it’s fair. There is plenty to satisfy, including a great value plat du jour which changes daily and averages at about £12. As an unashamed carnivore, the steak menu was the real draw, though I did find myself tempted by the hot roast shells – a seafood celebration. The obvious solution? To create our very own surf and turf.
Food decided, we turned out attention to the important matter of booze. The raison d’être of this brand is wine – and always has been. Far be it for us to pretend our meagre knowledge is worthy, so we called in the help of the charming master sommelier, Ronan Sayburn. After a quick Q&A about our likes and dislikes, and a few subtle questions to determine the depth of our knowledge, he mysteriously went off on his quest, returning with a carafe of deep red wine which he refused to tell us anything about it until we gave him our thoughts on its origin. We didn’t do too badly, guessing that it was definitely not a new world wine. But we failed to recognise its northern Spanish roots, but that was, we like to think, mainly thanks to its interesting character. The most important thing was that it was absolutely delicious, spot on for both our tastes, and also, fairly, nowhere near the top-end of the wine list in terms of pricing. It was a Petallos Vierzo 2009, if you’re interested. (And if you’re really, really interested, check out the Ecole du Vin wine course weekends the group runs regularly if you want to learn more about wine from these passionate experts).
My lobster bisque, to start, was divine. Rich, lobstery and smooth as silk. My colleague’s crab was equally outstanding – a disk of wonderfully fresh, hand-picked white meat, topped with a sliver of the flavoursome brown meat, and served ever-so-simply with a wedge of lemon and some toast. And that was all that was needed. Sometimes – just sometimes – the sign of a good chef is to let the ingredients sing on their own.
Onto our surf and turf combo. A 500g bone-in sirloin, with fabulous béarnaise and so-so chips – we would have preferred well-seasoned fries rather than these oven-chip-a-likeys. The Aberdeenshire steak was delicious, hugely flavoursome with a perfectly charred and caramelised outer and a beautiful pink inner. This is thanks to the Bistro’s Josper grill – an indoor barbecue that reaches searing temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the intense heat giving the meat a subtle, smoky flavour, as well as cooking it perfectly. The Josper was also responsible for our hot shells platter – a ridiculously enormous tray of lobster, crayfish, clams, mussels, oysters and razor clams, all naughtily doused in butter. The waiters admirably accommodated our awkward sharing of these two dishes on our compact table for two, bringing extra plates and finger bowls whenever they were needed, which was often. Then they’d be quietly at our side again, whisking away obsolete crockery and bringing extra pincers and cutlery without even a nod from me. I think the mess we made of the table, and of ourselves, was testament to how much we enjoyed the dish.
Full, but there to do a job and see it through to the end, we bravely ordered dessert. We were tempted to take up our waiter on his offer of a tour and tasting in the cheese room, but that could have potentially finished us off. So we opted, instead for a cocktail dessert and one dessert proper. The Vacherin strawberry sundae was mysteriously lacking in Vacherin and explained strangely by one of our waiter’s, the only one whose grasp of English was a little lacking. What arrived, however, was a trashy, knickerbocker glory – the kind of thing you’d expect at the end of Brighton pier. And that’s not necessarily a criticism. The crème brûlée martini was incredible. Had there been rooms upstairs, I would have been tempted to book myself in and order another (and probably another after that), but me and my heels had to navigate our way back through the Saturday night Soho crowds, so sense took over and we headed home feeling fully sated and vowing to be back very soon for a very grown-up Sunday lunch, or a few hours with the weekend papers washed down with a few glasses of the excellent house Champagne.
Bistro du Vin has very quickly established itself as a grown-up new haunt in Soho to while away the hours, meet up with friends and eat excellent, simple, delicious bistro-style dishes. Does it redefine food offerings in the Capital? No. But there’s something very comforting, along with the favourites on the menu, knowing you’re guaranteed great food, friendly service and some excellent bottles of wine.
Bistro du Vin, 36 Dean Street, London, W1D 4PS
Tel: 0207 432 4800