There are two distinct modes to the atmosphere at BiBo, the glitzy new Shoreditch restaurant from Michelin-anointed Spanish chef Dani Garcia. During the daytime, it is semi-abandoned and a little awkward; a weird, gilded tundra of sparsely populated tables, clenched hotel lobby vibes and theatrical dining room flourishes that don’t really make sense without a sizeable audience.
But then in the evening it all suddenly comes roaring to life. Tables in the darkness heave with people hurling down sangria blanca cocktails by the gallon. Rapidly prepared huevos rotos, or broken eggs, sizzle and sputter on tableside hot plates. And as a swelling tide of giddy conversation jostles with the throb of soulful house on the sound system, the whole thing takes on the feel of a sort of glamorously peopled chair-dancing convention. “I’m ready to push these tables to the side to make a dance floor,” said my mate Joe, surveying it all one recent Friday night, with the specific zeal of a man just liberated from a week’s self-isolation.
So why say all this? Partly it is a reminder of the value of experiencing a restaurant in more than one context. But it is also to give the sense that BiBo is, at heart, a place of quite pronounced extremes. Freshly installed in the new Mondrian Shoreditch, priced relatively accessibly and anchored by its sneakily modish approach to Spanish cuisine, Garcia’s creation tends to oscillate between the spectacular and the hugely perplexing. Though, thankfully, there is generally much more of the former.
Also relevant: it is one of a number of openings that represent the latest grand game of musical chairs among the capital’s big-ticket hotel restaurants. US celebrity chef Nancy Silverton is bedding in at Marylebone’s Treehouse Hotel. Norse live fire god Niklas Ekstedt is succeeding Robin Gill at Great Scotland Yard in Whitehall. And now here is Garcia, taking over from Marcus Samuelsson’s fervently hyped, generally underwhelming Red Rooster, with the newest outpost of a hit brand he has already expanded to Marbella, Madrid and Doha.
An ursine, bespectacled Andalusian, Garcia’s stock-in-trade is a stated wish to democratise fine dining (he closed his eponymous Madrid restaurant in 2019, barely a year after it had been awarded a third Michelin star) and a vivacious tendency that quickly presents itself through the room (a maximalist frenzy of brushed velvet seats, copper-panelled walls and sculptural light fixtures shaped like roaming shoals of white fish). His vast menu deftly encompasses both affordable tapas and blow-out £100 sharing platters of turbot and funky txuleta steak.
There are nicely zingy, high-crunch slabs of pan con tomate, gooey, spurting croquetas crowned with little lacquered sheafs of jamón ibérico and huge fire-blackened pans of chicken paella packing both rich, stock-plumped grains and that scrapably crisp socarrat crust. And beyond these spins on rustic, Spanish cooking, BiBo also finds a compelling, coherent way to weave in unexpected East Asian influences. Fat whole prawns, deep-fried in a golden, shattering dumpling wrapper, are like reimagined wontons. Fronds of kale and nubby broccolini arrive with a fistful of roasted peanuts and a Caesar-like dressing primed with a numbing lick of Szechuan pepper. Oxtail brioche, meanwhile — with its glistening little exterior puddle of umamified secret mayo — is almost an Iberian bao; a category-defying, messy assault on the senses worth its building hype.
So where do these big swings not quite pay off? Well, those sangria blancas had the wincing sharpness of undiluted cordial. Plus the decision to serve a creditable Basque cheesecake with drifts of ripe Mahón cheese is — let me be clear — actual madness that doesn’t work on any level. And yet, I find that this counter-intuitive, unpredictable streak almost makes me love this place even more. Garcia has added fun, party-starting hedonism and rough-hewn generosity to a hotel restaurant genre so often characterised by pinched joylessness and ridiculous prices. Its sense of risk reaps rich rewards. And though there may be house on the speakers, there is something beguilingly free-jazz about BiBo’s gastronomic approach and spirit.
45 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT; Meal for two plus drinks around £160. Open Monday to Sunday 12pm to 11pm; sbe.com/restaurants/bibo/shoreditch