Bistrot one ninety

20 July 2004
Bistrot one ninety

Do you remember bistros? They were one of those stepping stones towards Britain's gastronomic reawakening (handed to us from France, of course); a seventies buzz word that bestowed unquestionable Continental value on an operation, but which by the mid-nineties had drowned in a sea of bad French onion soup. No matter; by then we'd developed our own version of the neighbourhood diner, thank you very much - the gastropub. We didn't need French-sounding titles any more, just the absurd ones we made up ourselves.

"Bistro RIP", then? Well, perhaps not. When 31-year-old Irish-born chef Malcolm Starmer finished his much-feted three-year stint as head chef at Richard Corrigan's English Garden (recently relaunched as Rasoi Vineet Bhatia), he chose not another job on London's fine-dining circuit ("does London need another David Collins interior?" he laughs) or a switch to the latest hijacked boozer, but the position of executive chef at the Gore hotel in Kensington.

In food terms, this distinguished but eccentric townhouse hotel had little reputation, apart from a 70-seat restaurant called 190 Queen's Gate that Antony Worrall Thompson opened in 1990. Wozza, however, went, and so did the quality, but the name stuck and the owners decided to recruit Starmer to reinvigorate the formula: "There's no point getting a leopard to change its spots," says Starmer. And anyway, he liked the idea: "The bistro feel is a bit less restrictive: you can play around, it's a bit more casual," he says.

Accordingly, food is a chirpy, Med-inspired mixture, big on seasonality (the greatest lesson he learnt from Corrigan) and lovingly executed. One starter, a chilled soup of almond and garlic, is inspired by North Africa and the white gazpacho made with bread in Spain (£9); lifted with a lobster tail or claw on the side with a garnish of chilli, mint and grapes, it's colourful, summery and delicious.

A similar tone is set with grilled sardines, stuffed with toasted brioche, lemon zest, Parmesan, sweated onions, raisins and pine nuts (£8.50); duck prosciutto, meanwhile, comes on bright red pieces of watermelon (£8.95). "When the sun comes out you reflect this on the menu," Starmer explains.

Mains feature four fish and five meat dishes, plus two daily specials, and Starmer has been amazed by what sells the most: the baked collar of ham (£15.50) - second only to monkfish. He doesn't boil the meat because he feels lower salt contents in ham now mean there isn't as much flavour as before. "Instead, I just rinse a hock for half-an-hour, then put it in a pot with a glass of water and a glass of white wine and veg, and seal it with a tight-fitting lid," he says. "I let it steam in the juices and it really brings the sweetness out."

It certainly sounds like a rustic dish (there's a pot au feu of beef on the menu, too, for £18.95), and Starmer says the clientele is far less formal than you'd expect in a hotel dining room. As well as the old Kensington guard, there are museum staff, students and, of course, Albert Hall concert-goers - plus two private dining rooms downstairs. "But none of thems want penguins standing over them all the time," he says, "interfering with their bottle of wine."

Certainly on a warm summer's day the high-ceilinged room, huge windows and picture-crammed walls create a relaxed scene, and a more characterful alternative to the brown/ maroon uniform of the gastropub.

With Starmer also proving a dab hand with the puds (woodland strawberries with an elderflower custard is given the retro sundae feel, arriving in a conical glass and very moreish at £5.95), the food is a notch above, too.

So might the bistro be back in favour? "I like this," says Starmer. "It's old-world and a bit quirky. There's no reason why this place can't be busy, it's just about re-establishing it in people's minds."

Bistrot One Ninety, the Gore hotel, 190 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5EX. Tel: 020 7584 6601

What's on the menu - Ballotine of marinated foie gras with sorrel leaves, apple and walnut vinaigrette, £10.50

  • Jersey Royal potato salad with smoked herring, beetroot and pancetta, £9.50
  • Salad of yellow beans, capocolo, parsley and lemon, £7.50
  • Saut‚ of diver-caught scallops with truffled peas and guanciale, £19.50
  • Rump of new season lamb with tomato, goats' cheese and basil agnolotti, £16.50
  • Roast Kentish ranger chicken with courgette flowers and Parmesan panna cotta, £17.50
  • Chocolate pot with rhubarb and blood orange sorbet, £5.95
  • Marinated peaches with mascarpone ice-cream, grappa and basil, £5.95

Chef's cheat
I've discovered this natural cassava extract called Micri that's recently been developed in Spain. It's totally colourless, odourless and tasteless, and can be used as an emulsifier or stabiliser. You can add a teaspoonful to butter sauces so they hold for the whole of service, or use it as a base for sauces, and I know one pastry chef who uses it instead of eggs to make ice-cream.

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