>>> Bistro Ateneu, 3 Episcopiei Street, Bucharest<<<

When I read that this chophouse had been awarded the status of ‘Chef of The Year’, which presumes it is the finest eatery in the nation – I had to visit. All the more so since Blondie insisted on paying to see if it was worthy of the accolade.

By Michael Barclay

But it was not. The dubious award was granted by the restaurant guide Gault and Millau. Gault and who? You may ask. Well, this guide is famous in France, but largely unheard of in the rest of the world, which defers to the better known Michelin Guide as the arbiter of fine cuisine. But out of curiosity we had to go there.

It is small, chic and expensive. Did that impress the ludicrous judges of Gault and Millau to declare them number one?  But I am here for the food, rather than to stroke the ego and endorse the credibility of the guide. So let’s get down to business and look at the menu.

I felt comfortable when I read only four or five choices listed as starters or mains. This enables the chef to optimize his talent into a ‘bottleneck’ of dishes, rather than the usual Bucharest nonsense fare of page after page listing up to one hundred dishes on the menu.

So we started with Blondie having a starter of ‘wild mushrooms with thyme and polenta chips,’ at a huge price of RON 53. It was precisely what it said it was, with the ‘polenta chips’ being deep fried squared crisps.  I mooched a forkful off her plate, and it was simple and good – but at RON 53 it was a mystery as to how they could justify the price.

Away to mains. I had a ‘sheep with cauliflower in butter, and green pepper’, at a whopping RON 95. Oh come on, people, how difficult is that to make? The menu said ‘sheep’ rather than lamb, which means it was an old geriatric mutton which died of old age. But the chef brought it back to life by giving me my meat as moist and juicy as it should be. Full marks for that, but the house has zero marks for the art of ‘plating up’. This is a term used by the industry to make your food please the eye as much as the palate.

One of the greatest pleasures in dining life is ‘eating with your eyes’, when you see a masterpiece of food sculptured on your plate, teasing and flirting with you and demanding you eat it as a thing of beauty. But not in this House. It was: wham, here is the meat, and wham, here are the vegetables on the side.

A similar experience awaited Blondie’s dish. She chose pigeon with vegetables at a knockout price of RON 105 for a slice of breast. I just had to mooch a slice of her bird and it was cooked perfectly in isolation from the rest of her vegetables. But what a mistake the kitchen made, for this bird has been traditionally served in a heavy sauce of Port wine or Cumberland sauce (port wine with mustard and orange zest), and just like my lamb, it was wham, there it is… on the plate. No sauce. Hundreds of years of gastronomic tradition and know-how are ignored by a mere Romanian chophouse.

We passed on the only dessert on the menu, ‘cottage cheese biscuit, with elderflower and sour cherry sorbet’ at RON 35. It was not inspiring. We enjoyed some wonderful wine and it is to the credit of the House that they got the selection correct. But can you imagine my consternation when I ordered a cognac at the end of my oh-so-average expensive meal to be told that “we are a French restaurant and we only serve fine wine. If you want a cognac, you have to buy it from the shop opposite.” The shop opposite was closed at 10.p.m. when we were dining.

The House professes to be a French restaurant, but it is nothing of the sort. It is a Romanian chophouse with French pretensions charging Parisian prices for food which is OK for Bucharest, but would be insignificant in Europe.

This House has had many makeovers. Four years ago it was Bistro Francaise, then it flipped last year to a sushi bar, now it is Bistro Ateneu. I wonder how long it will survive. I don’t hold out much hope.


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