It’s been an awfully long while since last using my critical eye on the restaurant guy. I’m actually a bit nervous. It’s finally time to come out of hiding behind the odd recipe and opinion piece and get stuck in to what I love doing best: finding a tablecloth new in which to create my story and carve out a new critique, out of my comfort zone and challenging – but where? Whilst I’ve been thinking about that, I went for dinner at an old neighbourhood haunt, the Bluebird in Chelsea.
Chelsea is threatening to get interesting when it comes to dining right now. The ink is still wet on the menus at Phil Howard’s new venture on Elystan Street, and Santa Maria has managed to toss its dough all the way just over Stanley Bridge into Fulham. Whilst on the subject of crossing bridges and new leaves, the Gladwin brothers from The Shed, and, more pertinently, Rabbit, on the King’s Road, have just cultivated their new venture Nutbourne into germination in Battersea also.
When it comes to the Bluebird, a rebirth from the cobalt ashes was always going to be in the works since the Caprice group raised their colours further down the King’s Road with their Ivy Chelsea Garden venture. Despite many a sceptical local from its early days, it seems now to have been accepted in the neighbourhood, and business is blooming. The tremors must have been detected back up the A308 – the great blue behemoth was under threat.
This inevitable re-working of the Bluebird was a chance to re-curry favour with the neighbourhood, and the discerning, sceptical locals mentioned above. The main criticisms unanimously being the service and diluted effort when it came to the bar.
I was awaiting the launch night with much anticipation. A lick of paint, an MOT on the bar and front of house, and a full service and oil change on the menu should put this grandiose old garage back in pole position. A shiny old Mustang and the battered old Jag from Withnail & I (it wasn’t; it was a very well looked-after contemporary) greeted the guests downstairs before ascending the stairs to the podium for a pre-prandial or four.
“Let there be light” is the best summary of how I can describe the brief for the interior refurbishment. Lots of foliage (no ivy in sight) and trees – reaching up into the rafters and the atrium roof, surrounded by the old metalwork of the garage which now says “look at me!” rather than being blended in and hidden like it’s ashamed of its past. I’m looking to return in the daytime to see it in all its splendour.
The sceptics will be glad to learn that the bar area is now serving well-polished libations. Expertly-crafted Negronis and superbly stirred Old Fashioneds were certainly a good way to get the engines revving for dinner. The menu is easy enough to follow. The standard grid layout of Starters, Fish, Meat, Pasta, Grill, etc., are there; however, now there is an emphasis on the first courses being sharer plates. Most of the appetisers seemed straightforward; I was glad to see the beef tartare making an appearance. It’s something they’ve always done well. We opted for the most intriguing-looking dish: a BBQ quail with guacamole, in addition to a tuna tartare. The quail was well-seasoned and nicely cooked, if not a bit on the rare side, which is OK for me. The tuna appeared to be well executed with nice, uniform chunks, but unfortunately overpowered by the cucumber and coriander in the mix.
I’ve always enjoyed the variety and value of the wine list at Bluebird, and in the new restaurant, things were no different. The sommelier’s choice of an organic Pouilly-Fumé at £65 was well worth the money. My favourite Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy nearly always hails from the Sonoma or Russian River Valleys in California. The Sonoma Pinot in this case was a real delight and half the price of a Kistler or suchlike you’d find on other wine lists in the capital.
Lap two followed with calves’ liver, sweet peppers, olive and sage and a mackerel fillet with borlotti beans. My co-driver was very happy with the liver, well-textured and cooked perfectly to his liking. The poor wee mackerel, however, seemed to be trying not to drown upon an enormous ocean of beans. Don’t get me wrong – the beans in their rich sauce, with fatty pancetta, were a triumph – it just seemed a bit odd having a lonely fish fillet bobbing around on the surface which would submerge at any attempt to tackle it with cutlery. Both the fish and the beans were delicious; I just wouldn’t have them together in that fashion.
There we are; after crossing the finish line, and with the chequered flag waving, overall the experience of the new Bluebird was a good one. The new décor and use of the brilliant bar area were essential cogs in the engine to get things moving in the right direction. The wine list remains strong and the service was much improved. We were well looked after from reception to completion. I’m glad to say I’ve first of all almost expended all of my motoring-based puns, and secondly that this old bird has got a lot of life left in her. The restaurant scrapheap is a long way away from the Bluebird yet.
Bluebird 350 King's Rd, Chelsea, London SW3 5UU