Restaurant Review: Bar Boulud in Knightsbridge (and why Giles Coren is wrong)

Giles Coren is wrong and I went to Bar Boulud with the intention of showing this.  Semi- unfortunately it was not the restaurant to do it with.

I got back from holiday and had a flick through The Times at my parent’s house.  I don’t normally read The Times as I like immigrants and don’t care about celebrity gossip.  I was curious to see what Giles Coren was ranting about this week in his review of Bar Boulud and found him high in the ridiculous stakes with his views on anonymity.

Giles Coren’s stance on anonymous dining is simple: restaurants “can only serve [Coren] the same food they serve to little old you”.  Well putting the patronising aside from a man whose daddy was a very successful journalist, he is wrong.  They can serve very different food.  And as he seems to accept the service can be different, very different.

I asked Jen, from her experience in working in food TV for 10 years, what restaurants did when they spotted critics.  The answer was simple, they write VIP on the tickets and the head chef will supervise and improve every element of every dish before it goes out to the critic.  It would be madness to do otherwise.  That critic can mean that difference between success and failure.

That is why Coren’s self justification on the merits of his reviews is so desperate.  Does he really not realise that he receives wholly different food and service from us? Or, is this a defensive manoeuvre from a man who recognises that he peddles stories and fantasies about restaurants that the public’s experience will rarely match?

So when he delves into his cupboard of vitriol and mockery to criticise the NY Times reviewer Ruth Reichl for visiting restaurants in elaborate disguises so she could eat anonymously… well, I am less than impressed.  Does he hold similar content for anonymous reviewers such as Marina from the Metro or the entirety of Time Out’s Food and Drink section?

Anyway, the reason Bar Boulud was not the right restaurant to demonstrate that we, the public, get different meals from critics and that anonymity matters was that the service is fantastic. Bloody brilliant.  Eager, knowledgeable, trained.

The food was also not wholly different from Coren’s experience.  It was good, efficient stuff.  You couldn’t pick an obvious flaw.  The charcuterie we had to start was excellent but when you buy cold cuts and terrines from one of the world’s best charcuteriers, shouldn’t it be?  The burger I had was good, the pulled pork on top a nice addition, cooked medium rare.  Jen’s boudin blanc was truffley and indulgently rich. So, what isn’t to recommend?

Well it was boring.  Impersonally so.  The room is a triumph of ladies who lunch.  It is devoid of emotion, expression or anything to draw the eye.  There is nothing to distract you from the food which is not remarkable enough to distract you from discussions about the stock market or whatever else the rich and indulgent who dine there muse about.

One day after dining there I can barely remember the meal.  However, subsequent meals I’ve had this week at Chilli Cool and Koya are still on my tongue and making smile slyly.

Price – £100 for three

PS and for the context have a look at Marina O’Loughlin’s 3 out of 5* review in the Metro (here) and I would link to Giles Coren’s review but, well, it is paywalled now so you will have to either live in the home counties and subscribe or, erm, well live without it

Bar Boulud (Mandarin Oriental Hotel) on Urbanspoon

11 Comments

  1. Hugh Wright

    I'm confused. In one paragraph you say: "Does he really not realise that he receives wholly different food and service from us?" and then a few lines down you summarise: "The food was also not wholly different from Coren's experience."

    I know Giles got people's backs up with this particular review – which of course is entirely deliberate on his part – but ultimately you appear to end up agreeing with him which I don't think is what you set out to do!

  2. Tom

    Hugh – I know. I almost hoped I would receive terrible service and an abysmal meal. However, service was fantastic and the food was good (but bland).

    That is why I said the restaurant unfortunately didn't allow me to demonstrate my point. My deserts at Bocca di Lupo yesterday probably would have – cruddy service, cruddy deserts – but I am not even sure whether Coren has reviewed that.

    He does have a particular skill at being infuriating…

  3. Dave

    Giles does my head in and I refuse to read anything he writes. He is a smug, arrogant person ….. Not my type ….
    But reviewers (if known by the Chef) do get glammed up food. I know I once cooked part of a meal for the editor of Food and Travel Magazine. Who also got his meal as a freebie for a good review. It's the way it works.
    I've also noticed a lot of bloggers writing very positive reviews for free food also. But they do admit to it in shame, but they still accept it.

  4. Siany

    Giles Corens stuck behind a paywall… blissful.

  5. Tom

    Dave – I suppose one of the reasons he writes like a prick is that he writes for a national newspaper. Less than 1% of the people who read the paper live in London and less than that might go to the restaurant. His reviews are therefore focused on entertainment, distraction and selling his books rather than an earnest critique of the food.

    My views on free food are pretty clear, there is no way it does anything but compromise a reviewer (and free alcohol even more so…). Still most people disclaim it these days and I think it is recognised and dealt with fairly well by most bloggers internally.

    Siany – I will have to visit my parents less regularly to ensure I don't stumble across his words.

  6. The Grubworm

    I think Coren is good writer, but incredibly annoying and gives a good impression of being a complete arse in person. Heard a few less than complimentary things about him from those who have eaten at the same time as he's been reviewing too.

    @Dave – i used to do restaurant reviews for Food & Travel (although as a real underlink not editor!) and it is one of the main reasons I decided never to do paid reviews. I found the whole experience stressful and never enjoyed eating. There was always clear expectation of good reviews and it was obvious more attention was paid to the food. I hated it.

  7. Tom

    Well he has built is career on being obnoxious which apparently sells books…

  8. Gourmet Chick

    I agree with you – I was amazed by Coren's review he has got to be kidding himself if the thinks that the food is not different, and that the service, table he is given etc is not markedly better than your average punter. I was especially annoyed at his ridicule of Ruth Reichel who I have to say I really respect as a restaurant critic and author – I loved her books Garlic and Sapphire and Tender at the Bone – unlike Coren.

  9. Tom

    I haven't read her books but Jen is more familiar with her coming from a US background and really respected Reichel and has been nagging me to read them… I think this may be just what I needed to push me to read them

  10. Greedy Diva

    Very funny. And when searching for "Giles Coren Bar Boulud" on Google, your review comes up before his!

    I really admire reviewers like Ruth Reichl (I enjoyed her G&S book too) and Marina O'L who preserve their anonymity since it has to be the best way to tune in to the experience of the average punter.

    For bloggers, although free events can be a great way to meet other food obsessives, chefs and to learn a thing or two, it opens a minefield as to how much it must influence the experience and you learn which bloggers you trust as to how much they can look past this and report back with a critical eye and integrity – equally so when anonymity is lost when bloggers pay for food but make it obvious they are bloggers, although this type of compromise is not always as explicit as the free food disclaimer.

    PS. At the risk of writing a comment almost as long as your post(!), I really enjoyed the ambience at BB – although everyone has caned it since Marina's review which drew focus to it. So many London restaurants lack style and ambience so I certainly don't think BB stands out as deficient and I found it quite New Yorkish. Maybe I had a good night!

  11. Tom

    Greedy Diva – haha. I am glad it does though I think that is probably due to The Times firewall. And the firewall is one reason why I would guess that he is on such a concerted drive to wind people up as his readership will have fallen off a cliff.

    I still haven't read Reichel's books. I was intending to get them from amazon in HK but, and I can't believe it, they don't have amazon here? I am not sure I can survive without it. My preference on restaurants' decor is independent or scuzzy and this was wholesomely not that. Still it was an efficient and easy place to eat and evening with low light I can imagine is almost romantic?!

    I have really enjoyed it when I have eaten out with other bloggers for the reasons you say – you generally get a fist full of food education. Especially from the bloggers who are great cooks as well as when they discuss a dish they bring so much more to the table (I am def not a great cook). I haven't yet seen any bloggers make it clear they are (apart from the thousand pictures). In a really gimpy way Jen and I generally try to key up the settings on the camera before the meal and then take the shots quickly and without being noticed. I think it is the embarrassment factor : )

    We went on a midweek lunch so it is never the best time to get some ambience.

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