In its previous incarnation, Bistro K was L’Ambassade de L’Ile, an spectacularly ostentatious fine-dining French restaurant that cost its backers more than £2.2 million to open, yet lasted little more than a year.
The critics tripped over themselves to pay it a visit before signing its death warrant. The fact that it was so intrinsically French probably didn’t help either.
Although the cooking was generally praised, the stifling atmosphere and OTT decor seemed totally out of step with the times: it looked like ‘a Stevenage nightclub circa 1978’, Time Out reckoned.
Undaunted, the owners took the criticism on board, and have spent what looks like another small fortune refurbishing the site into an all-day, supposedly more casual dining destination.
It seems that old habits die hard, though, because Bistro K now occupies a rather uncomfortable place between uptight fine dining and the informality it aims for.
The shag pile carpet and mirrored walls of L’Ambassade have been replaced by wooden flooring and inoffensive, almost cold decor, which needed a convivial crowd to create a buzz. It didn’t help that on our Thursday evening visit, staff outnumbered customers twofold.
And the reverential silence of L’Ambassade has been replaced by a loungey soundtrack that plays slightly selfconsciously.
The service remains rather over-busy, with water and wine subjected to incessant top-ups, and the food for our table of two seemingly requiring two staff members to serve it. Our waitress, though, was helpful and cheerful throughout.
The food, though, suffered from an identity crisis. A French bistro requires homely dishes that are immediately familiar and reassuring.
Our starter of rillettes (slightly too mushy) and charcuterie with pickles was unremarkable, and contained very un-French serrano ham.
A main of duck confit, served with fondant potato and ‘Koffman cabbage’, was very good – the crisp, salty skin of the duck concealed tender meat. But the artful presentation felt a bit fussy.
Another main of spaghetti with sea bass and tomato and garlic sauce was good too – cleanly flavoured and superbly fresh – but didn’t match the duck for finesse.
The dessert menu is a roll-call of Gallic classics – tarte tatin, lemon tart, roast pear. Our chocolate fondant was a dark, sticky delight.
Or main caveat though isn’t the food or the ambience, but the bill. Two courses each, a shared dessert and the cheapest bottle of wine
(a tropical Entre-Deux-Mers at £23) came to a rather steep £100 for two.
Perhaps ‘Bistro K2’ would be more appropriate.