Opened summer 2014 in the former canteen of the 19th century Cirque d'Hiver (still going strong a couple of doors down), Clown Bar's Belle Époque décor isn't as lavish as you might expect. The vibe is more clean and cool and hipster, like many other contemporary 'néobistrots', with extra clown around the edges. Service is speedy, smiley and bilingual; but the real 'oohs' and 'aahs' rising up from the audience are inspired by the dishes coming out of the kitchen. There's a prestige team behind the scenes – chef Atsumi Sota was formerly at Vivant, and owners Sven Chartier and Ewen Lemoigne have a bunch of other greats including Saturne – and it shows.
The short, seasonal menu doesn't do descriptions, just lists ingredients in that contemporary style, so if you're unsure or queasy about some of the more adventurous parts of French cuisine, get the staff to help you out. Another thing to note before ordering is that the portions – including the opening 'snacks' – are extremely generous.
Over an excellent bottle of white (the team also give serious wine cellar), we nibbled on finely sliced charcuterie Noire de Bigorre (a black pig from the Pyrenees) and a bowl of breaded, deep-friend whelks – an original idea that completely worked. Then the starters (yes, we're only at starters); a beautiful bowl of still-warm oysters and smoked eel with bright greens that tasted "like sea soup", and a fat scoop of creamy grated celeriac with a tower of clean white crab meat.
Mains added welcome sweet, dark notes, with a heavenly tranche of venison accompanied by a whipped chestnut purée, and a plate of rich, tender pigeon with fresh raspberries. We finished up with a deep bowl of fluffy white mousse with a crunchy biscuit topping and a scoop of raspberry sorbet at its heart – a light, fresh, perfectly satisfying dessert.
Clown Bar isn't a cheap and cheerful bistro, but it is something rather special – original cooking in a historic location from a powerhouse team – and it's open on Sundays. Enjoy.