La Bonne Bouffe: 49 North Cross Road, London SE22 9ET
Contact: 020 3730 2107; labonnebouffe.co.uk
Dinner for two: about £90 (three courses with wine and service)
Students of independent British cinema will no doubt recall the ill-starred French bistro set up by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, the Regret Rien. Offering such delicacies as King Prawn in a Jam Sauce and Pork Cyst, the restaurant stayed open for just one evening, during which Spall’s character Aubrey hit the vin ordinaire perhaps a little too hard, before dissolving into a hot, blubbery mess of tearful lechery.
What played in 1990 as a slightly cruel satire on the vain hopes of a small man looks today to be a work of prophecy. If I told you that Heston Blumenthal’s next restaurant would offer a series of radical reinventions of Anglo-French retro classics including Saveloy on a Bed of Lychees, you’d be agog to hear more. If I tweeted about the rejer med syltetøj I’d just enjoyed in a badger-infested shack off the coast of Jutland, you’d be quick to pretend you had eaten there a year ago, before the Mainstream Media ruined it.
There’s something ever so slightly Mike Leigh-esque – a sort of shambolic, improvised quality, maybe – about East Dulwich in south London. Gentrification is well advanced there, to be sure (it’s well supplied with smallish, handsome and only moderately exorbitant Victorian terrace houses; its train station zips into the City). But the main drag retains the rumpled dignity of old newsreel footage.
From the online bulletin boards of the East Dulwich Forum (a Paradiso of unintentional comedy, a Pillow Book of misplaced amour propre, a Sun Tzu’s Art of War of advanced passive-aggressive techniques), it’s clear that long-term residents view the incoming tide of artisan bakeries and dog-grooming salons ambivalently: much has been gained, yet something, somehow, has been lost.
La Bonne Bouffe sits off the main road, in a pretty little street where they have a market on Saturdays. If Richard Curtis were starting out today he could do a lot worse than set up his romcom hatchery here. The restaurant is only a month or so old, but it eschews the kind of wild innovation that led poor Aubrey astray in Life Is Sweet (well, that and forgetting to tell anyone he was opening a restaurant).
In fact, it’s following a hallowed and, these days, fairly antiquated path. The menu is a mixtape of bistro standards – choucroute, merlu au beurre noir, steak hâché, saucisse aux lentilles, oeuf à la neige.
If you like those dishes, you’ll find them done here more than competently (the peppercorn sauce on my steak hâché was Dead Sea-salty, but otherwise we all thought everything pretty flawless – no gloop in the sauces, good ingredients).
The one vegetarian main, a feuilleté of artichoke and mushroom, was off (“… burt you can ’ave it weez jurst murshroom”, said our server). The cabbage in the choucroute had the requisite winey tang (though it wasn’t brought to the table with any of the theatrical palaver you sometimes get in France).
One of the daily adjustments they make to the regular menu meant I got to have one of my favourite soups, made with whizzed-up pea and lettuce, potage St Germain (though they bizarrely called it potage Crécy, which ought to be a carrot soup).
Anyway, it was lovely – smooth and springlike, with a few lettuce stalks, lurking in the depths like an angry xenomorph waiting to strike, to lend a hint of grown-up bitterness. “You always enjoy soup more than you think you’re going to, don’t you?” said my partner brightly, in a not unwelcome foretaste of our old age together.
A side order of spinach went astray - which is the best thing you can do with a side order of spinach in my book
But, as people in my position never tire of saying (though people in your position may well be tired of hearing it), it’s Not Just About The Food. Service was pleasing – slow, yet somehow slow in a deeply urbane way – but not perfect. There was a bit of a fracas at the end when we discovered someone had walked off with my friend’s coat and left their, frankly inferior, coat in its stead; but the staff were calm and practical about it.
However, some gentle upselling took place on the wine front: we asked for an IGP red from Provence but received a Côtes de Provence AOC costing around a tenner more. Of course we could have sent it back, but I’m afraid greed prevailed – as embarrassment might, if you were there on a date, say. A side order of spinach went astray, which is the best thing you can do with a side order of spinach in my book.
We were sequestrated off from the main room in a plain wooden booth, as if we were planning a big drug deal or choosing a new Pope. But the restaurant appeared handsome and buzzy – low lighting, bare brick, the usual shtick. It has a stylish logo of two bosomy B’s facing in opposite directions: a bit art deco, a bit Ministry of Sound.
I always think it’s the job of restaurant reviewers to discourage our readers from devoting time and money to places that are merely expensive or merely fashionable. In both cases the goal is to peer through the gloaming and shine a light on what we think is actually good. Deciding what “good” means is a life’s work, to be sure; but it’s nice to have something to shoot for.
Anyway, La Bonne Bouffe isn’t particularly expensive (though it was more expensive than we thought it would be); and it isn’t particularly fashionable (though French cuisine does seem to be enjoying a bit of a moment). But it is good, I think: quite good by any standards; very good for a neighbourhood joint. After a few weeks it feels like it’s always been there. But over at the East Dulwich Forum, needless to say, they aren’t so sure.