29 JULY 1989, Page 43


Stephen Bull

FOOD which is neither the best nor the Worst is the hardest to write about. Not that the cooking at Stephen Bull is mediocre. Mr Bull is far too committed and enthusiastic a chef for that. Having earned — with justification — plaudits for his years of slaving over a hot stove in someone else's kitchen, he quite reason- ably enough decided to do an Alastair Little and open his own, eponymous estab- lishment. The result, while not a disgrace by any means, was, on my visit, a dis- aPpointment. Still, all restaurants have their off days, and I did go on one of the Wednesday strikes when Mr Bull may well not have been feeling his best. Friends Whose taste I trust have come away from their visits with more generous praise than I am inclined to bestow, so my disappoint- ment may well be due to the fact that Stephen Bull has not had time yet to settle down properly and achieve a consistent standard. Or maybe I should just change mY friends.

Blandford Street is a road divided: at one end are the glaring shopfronts of Baker Street, at the other the hanging- basketed cosiness of Marylebone High Street. It is in this more jaunty quartier that Stephen Bull is situated. In common with all too many new restaurants, Stephen Bull launches itself with a fair amount of gimmickry. Walls are a stark white, Pierced by the prism-like rays of well- aimed miniature spotlights, and as if in Celebration of his new status as chef-patron Mr Bull has his signature emblazoned on everything — on the menu, on the throw- away paper napkin-rings, even on the greaseproof paper covering the butter pats. But it is a comfortable enough place, and careful planning and real ingenuity have let it get away with more tables than you would think space would allow without making those at them feel cramped.

Torn between the cold sorrel soup, the lentil salad with anchoIade, sweet onion tart baked in vine leaves, Italian bread salad with capers and anchovies and artichoke stuffed with mushrooms and hazelnuts with sauce hollandaise, after Painful deliberation we went for the onion tart and bread salad. The onion tart is not exactly a tart, at least not as Alsaciens would understand it *— vine leaves are substituted for the pastry, which is a clever idea, but in its execution not completely convincing. The onions, slightly too finely shredded, are bound in a sweetish white sauce, are wrapped in the leaves and come in a pool of tomato coulis. I can see that the brilliant red of the sauce looks striking against the vine leaves' green, but just as the sauce which swathes the onions was too heavy for the leaf-wrapping, so too was the sweet intensity of the tomato sauce. I would have preferred a thin purée of red peppers, which would certainly create the same visual effect. As it stands, I felt the separate components of the dish didn't quite adhere; it wasn't bad, but just not quite as you felt it should, or could, be. The Italian bread salad was a better choice — chunks of dry bread soaked in olivy dressing and sharp with capers, onions and anchovies. If I could I'd have liked to dribble a little more rich, green olive oil on it, but I was pleased enough with it as it was.

For a main course we tried the pan-fried whiting with spinach and herb butter and the noisettes of lamb stuffed with lamb's sweetbreads and marjoram. The fish was slightly on the bland side, the noisettes more of an out and out success, the dense, robustly flavoured flesh of the lamb balancing the creamy softness of the sweet- breads and the marjoram-scented jus. Pud- dings, at £3.50 (with the plate of various chocolaty creations at a pound more), met with measured praise. The lemon curd tart (and I was lunching with someone who said she'd crossed France in pursuit of the right lemon curd tart) didn't quite work: the pastry was slightly too hard, the lemon curd both on the heavy side and runny, and just that bit too sweet. The demoulded mango soufflé, though eggy, was better.

Lunch for two, with a bottle of mineral water and one of their excellent house sauvignons (the Bel Air at a very reason- able £8) during the coffee afterwards, came to just under £50. The place obviously has promise, and I expect after the initial problems will settle down to produce the uniformly good food it is capable of. So if you're interested in risking new places, new dishes, do go.

Stephen Bull, 5-7 Blandford Street, Wl; 01-486 9696.

Nigella Lawson