Almost two decades after the original Boulestin was ripped down and replaced with a Pizza Hut, restaurateur Joel Kissin has revived this iconic French bistro in a new St James's location. Boulestin's second incarnation is a triumph, managing to remain true to tradition while tweaking things to appeal to twenty first-century diners.
St James's Street is steeped in tradition. It starts with The Wolseley and ends with St James's Palace; there's JJ Fox cigar shop, a Davidoff tobacconist and legendary wine specialist Berry Bros & Rudd. And the front of Boulestin seamlessly fits into all this, with its sharp, white facade decorated with Art Deco glass panels and flanked by ornate pillars. The bistro itself continues the chic design, with a cafe in the front and a restaurant toward the back, seating around 60 diners. A glass domed roof throws light over the room round lunchtime, and in the evening the big wooden bar dividing the two spaces kicks into action.
Perhaps the most enchanting part of Boulestin though, is the courtyard seating. Tables spill out into Pickering Place - famed both for being the smallest public open space in London, and also the site of the last public duel. There is access to the courtyard through a narrow passageway which separates Boulestin and Berry Bros & Rudd but diners can reach the tables through the restaurant, and enjoy lunch in the serenity of this hidden courtyard.
There is a degree of formality which you would expect of a St James's restaurant - from the starched linen tablecloths to the uniformed waiters. However, Boulestin is far from stuffy. The restaurant has taken the best bits of highfalutin French dining and given it a modern twist. No leather-bound, long menus, but a single clear and concise sheet. The banquette seating is spaced far enough apart to ensure a degree of privacy and the artwork - reproductions from the original Boulestin - translates well in the modern setting.
The service isn't understated and British; it is flamboyant and French - from the moment the napkin is flapped onto your lap to the moment your coat is helped on as you leave. Waiters gladly recommended wine to match specific dishes and are happy to talk you through the dishes listed in French, as well as answer enthusiastically when asked what they would pick from the menu.
For those who didn't live through the '80s dinner party scene, this is a wonderful walk through everything traditional French cuisine has to offer. For those who did live through the '80s dinner party scene - and have dreaded the three words 'coq au vin' ever since - then Boulestin is a great opportunity to reconsider just how divine perfectly-cooked French classics can be.
With the trend of small dish dining still pervading much of London's dining scene, Boulestin shows no hint of compromise. The rilette starter comes in an enormous ramekin - densely packed with pork meat hidden under a thick, fatty layer - and is a dish with a beautiful reluctance to adhere to any sort of modern day nutritional advice. For those more worried about their waistline, there is an artichoke salad, a colourful beetroot salad and smoked salmon also on the starter menu.
Main courses are divided into 'poultry and game', 'fish', 'meat', 'offal' and 'pasta, rice, vegetarian' - with a small selection under each header. The veal is well-seasoned, pink, melt-in-the-mouth opulence. And the rabbit falls off the bone, rolling into the most delicious accompanying jus.
The pudding list is naughtily tempting. After two sizable courses, nobody needs a pudding but the list largely features light, fruit-based puddings such as a passion fruit parfait or lemon cheesecake. It all reads easily enough to encourage diners that there's always room for just a little sliver of something tart and fruity at the end of the meal - just to cleanse the palate, of course.
The wine list provides a tour through some of France's best wine-producing regions, with bottles categorised geographically: Loire; Rhone; and Burgundy. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the presence of Spanish, Hungarian and even English wines appearing on the same list - a decidedly modern, cosmopolitan addition to a traditionally French menu. The house Champagne, Ruinart, starts at £70 - with other bottles starting around a very reasonable £19. The bar in the centre of the restaurant serves a wide range of spirits.
The Last Word
As an homage to one the 'grand fromages' of French cooking, this new bistro really does its namesake, Xavier Boulestin, proud. Whether it's a financier enjoying some wild pigeon over lunch, a family enjoying a sophisticated pre-theatre dinner, or a couple indulging in an evening of French classics, this traditional French bistro has got plenty to offer a modern day crowd.