I relish a certain symmetry in my metropolitan dining out patterns. Take Bouchon Racine and BiBi. The former has just been named Best New Opening by the National Restaurant Awards and placed at no.5 in their prestigious top 50. I’d already visited it in Farringdon, driven there by word of mouth and a residual reverence for its previous incarnation in Knightsbridge.
Flash back to the 2022 NRAs and flying in at no.5 and as best newcomer, yes, BiBi, a very different beast from Henry Harris’s take on a classic French bistro. In a discreetly glamorous Mayfair setting chef patron Chet Sharma nods to his Indian heritage both in decor and what’s on the plate but applies culinary methods learned in the development kitchens of our own Michelin heavies L’Enclume, The Ledbury and Moor Hall. The latter’s Mark Birchall is a particular culinary inspiration. He also worked a stint at the Basque Country’s Mugaritz, a respectable 31st in the 2023 World’s Top 50 Restaurants list announced this week.
No more lists I promise, just take on board that there is high-powered operator a couple of metres across the counter from me, assembling small plates in front of the sizzling sigree grill. The fish and meat that feel the heat are the best of British, the premium spices and other exotics sourced from across the Indian sub-continent. There’s a little map showing you locations on the back of the Chef’s Selection Menu.
At lunchtime there is an à la carte offering and a new four course set menu for £35, but that Chef’s Selection is the only evening option at £125 a head (an optional and top notch wine flight costs £75). The reasoning behind this no-choice direction, which pointedly avoids calling itself a ‘tasting menu’? Even though seven courses plus additional snacks sounds just that… with a certain welcome brevity.
“There’s some bad branding around the phrase ‘tasting menu’,” Chet Sharma tells Tony Naylor for a fascinating Observer Food Monthly article that dropped just as I started to gather my thoughts for this appraisal of BiBi’s cuisine.
The piece goes on: “BiBi’s £125 dinner menu is expensive. But crazy as it may sound, says Sharma, it was introduced to provide value. In London, he argues, you can easily spend £70 or £80 a head on fairly average food, whereas BiBi’s food (“complex enough to sit alongside the most complex dishes in the country”) aims to provide far greater bang for your buck.
“BiBi’s chefs are not wasting hours of costly labour prepping ingredients that aren’t sold. They are focused on perfecting a streamlined number of dishes. This helps Sharma keep tight control of his fluctuating food costs, and enables him to flexibly gild dishes: ‘Let’s add morels to this dish, for example’, when prices allow.”
So did the BiBi food live up to its reputation?
Easily. The snacks signal the playful intent, so far removed from stuffier high end London Indians (BiBi’s owners JKS are also responsible for Trishna, Gymkhana and Brigadiers). Take the papad scrolls flavoured with pungent cave-aged Wookey Hole Cheddar to be dunked in the dankest of green chutneys – pure chlorophyll pesto. Or a single Louët-Feisser oyster (from Carlingford Lough, also, incidentally, favoured by Bouchon Racine) dressed with passion-fruit Jal Jeera, a kind of tart cumin-scented lemonade.
In the second course proper there’s a similar culinary conceit, where an Orkney scallop sits ceviche like in its shell, loaded with a spiced up Nimbu Pani (lime soda, the Sub-Continent’s favourite soft drink). In between there’s the punch of a BiBi ‘tartare’. The tenderest of Belted Galloway beef is studded with fermented Tellicherry peppercorns to create a ‘chaat’ of pepper fry. Street food elevated, as they say in the trade.
Next up a is a Parsi special occasion classic called a macchi, where white fish fillets, often pomfret, are coated in a paste of ground coconut and sour mango, fresh coriander and mint, and steamed in banana leaves. In the Sharma version, with the emphasis on pickled green chillies, the fish is halibut and the result is hot and gorgeous.
Now that grill kicks in. It’s a £20 supplement for the Aged Swaledale Lamb Barra Kebab (main image). I couldn’t resist and it proved the dish of the evening (against a strong field). This traditional Mughli chop, charred and yet tender, comes encircled by spirals of a sensational Kashmiri doon chettin (walnut chutney), which is fiery but also in perfect balance.
Suddenly and surprisingly the counter in front of me fills up with a parade of dishes that signify ‘this is your main’. A pillowy roomali naan and a goodly helping of rice are there to mop up the juices from an ex-dairy goat Galouti Kebab and Sharmaji’s Lahori Chicken. Galouti means ‘melt in the mouth and this dish involving minced mutton or goat (interchangeable in North Indian cuisine) was created for a toothless old Nawab in Lucknow. The Lahori chicken has been marinated in yoghurt and spices before being barbecued. The whey collected from hanging the yoghurt combines with cashew to make a remarkable sauce alongside some wild garlic puree and a sharp cauliflower chutney.
Strained yoghurt is the base for the delicate shrikhand dessert featuring strawberry and meadowsweet. To conclude a kulfi ’lolly’, given an equally neat presentation to conclude a beguiling experience that redefines high end Indian restaurant food.
BiBi? A homage to Grandma with a contemporary cutting edge
You’ve been waiting for me to explain the name BiBi? There are echoes of some Sixties boutique there and isn’t there a Korean pop chanteuse with that moniker. Actually it’s an Urdu title roughly translating as ‘lady of the house’, often applied to grandmas and yes there are decorative touches honouring Chet’s own bibis – a wooden beaded curtain similar to the one in his grandma’s own kitchen, while Kashmiri Paisley motifs on walls and bar stools is inspired by her shawls. Antique mirrors and lamps add to the surprising homeliness in a tight 33-cover space.
All this is slightly at odds with the back story of Chef Chet. All that high end culinary discipleship that followed his physics doctorate at Oxford and an obvious commitment to sustainability that is very much of the moment. The kitchen grills with sustainable Holm Oak charcoal from the South Downs; the menu paper is compostable. You do sense though that at BiBi he has come ‘home’. And there is heart there. Utterly surprising and revelatory in the oligarch’s playground that most of Mayfair (and Knightsbridge) has become.
BiBi, 42 North Audley Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 6ZP. Vegetarian and pescatarian tasting menus are available.