‘I love life, I love to laugh, I love pink,’ enthuses Charmaine Abomnes, owner of the newly opened Bon Vivant restaurant in Marchmont Street in central London. The ambience reflects her stylish exuberance for the good things in life, the pink décor adding a feminine feel that is grown up, not girly. Art work on the walls is on the gentle side of erotic and peepholes on the loo doors reveal Charmaine’s sense of humour without frightening the horses. The menu takes diners on a tour of French regional fare with many brasserie favourites plus a few twists to keep dishes up to date.
Charmaine is charmante indeed. Having read Languages at a French university she is conversant with all things French and chose to revamp the family restaurant, previously an Italian named Balfour, with a Gallic theme. Under a striped awning a row of Parisian café chairs and tables wait patiently for warmer weather. When summer comes, this will be a great spot for people watching and, as sterling continues to drop in value, a little bit of France in London will have to suffice for many Francophiles.
Indoors, we perched at the bar, chatting to the baristas as they prepared Bon Vivant’s signature Dirty Pink cocktail. Served in a champagne coupe (why are cocktails served with tiny straws?) the evening got off to a boozy start.
Taking our seats for dinner, we sank happily into deep blue, velvet banquettes paired with marble topped tables. The walls are adorned with softly erotic artworks intended to give Bon Vivant a naughty air, a theme that continues with those peepholes on the loo doors which give way, thankfully, to a photograph rather than the occupant!
We sampled three starters from the list of entrees. Saumon Marine is a home cured salmon looking prettily pink on a black speckled plate. Artfully displayed, tasty and mellow, it was accompanied by pickled cucumber, carrot and tiny discs of beetroot. Small blobs of herbed crème fraiche held tiny shards of crisp salmon skin, bringing the dish bang up to date.
Salade de Chevre Chaud is a favourite French dish and this version was redolent of the South West of France with chunky lardons and walnuts which had been given a lovely candied upgrade. The warm goat’s cheese was served on crostini made from a dark- flour, rather than the ubiquitous baguette, another welcome touch. Grilled cherry tomatoes on the vine and a piquant vinaigrette cut through the richness of the cheese and pork.
Less successful was the Raclette which does not appear on the menu so perhaps was a special on the night. Overcooked potatoes and a strangely dull cheese need a bit of work.
The rest of the starters on the menu are typical of a French brasserie and all tempting – fish soup, mussels a la crème, a charcuterie board and – look away now animal welfare peeps – terrine de fois gras.
Some of the main courses are less typically French – Plaice was one of the fish options served with chorizo, samphire and beurre blanc. Tagliatelles with truffles looks delicious and the Poulet farci is served with butternut puree and a tarragon jus. We tried the Bavette – a fabulous piece of flatiron, beautifully cooked, and accompanied by a heap of sautéed shallots and garlic. Days later I am still thinking about it so a return visit will be in order.
The Magret de Canard was another well executed French favourite, the breast pink and tender and the parsnip purée so smooth it could be fed to newborns. The honey and thyme jus was rich and the hazelnuts strewn about added some crunch. It was a very well balanced dish.
We tried two sides from a selection of eight. The green salad was dressed with a light Caesar dressing while the Gratin Dauphinois was fab-u-lous. Served in a small, cast iron dish, I would be tempted, on returning, to order a super-large portion before heading for the closest cardiac unit.
The desserts give a nod to the French classics, often with a twist. Crème brulée was infused with Earl Grey and spiced up with a pear ragout – tiny cubes of poached pear.
Fondant au chocolat had a toffee sauce and hazelnut ice cream alongside as if this dish needs further sweetening!
The Tiramisu Breton will have to wait for my next visit as I am keen to see how the inventive chef integrates this Italian classic with caramel au beurre sale, the marvellous salted caramel from Brittany – and then adds a Dutch touch with Speculoos . An EU dish if ever there was one.
Bon Vivant is open all day and, being located in the vicinity of UCL and close both to Kings Cross and Russel Square will no doubt pick up the student and tourist trade. For locals, it will make a great neighbourhood restaurant. On the night we dined there was a youngish crowd but it is inviting for all ages. The staff were very friendly and looked smart in their Breton striped shirts. The restaurant will be serving Drunch – presumably a boozy brunch for those on the way home from clubbing or those recovering from the night before. Prices are reasonable, the location is good, the ambience inviting and all the food, bread aside, is prepared on site. More than can be said for many Parisian brasseries.
Bon Vivant is across the street from The School of Life which is just the sort of philosophical enterprise beloved of the French. Should any philosophers pop over for a meal they will find much sustenance on the plate including something to ponder over – a Deconstructed ‘Snickers’ Cheese Cake. Merveilleux!
75 -77 Marchmont Street
Tel: 0207 8375983