Last year, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a cocktail (or two) at the opulent Buddha-Bar Paris, where a giant Buddha statue overlooks a spacious dining area and numerous intimate gallery spaces. Red and gold are used in abundance, alongside vintage furnishings, to create a sense of theatrical flamboyance. All very well, when in Paris…
By contrast, the Buddha-Bar London has an altogether more ‘British’ feel. Not the fusty corduroy-and-doily type of British, but the slick, modernist British of cosmopolitan London. Black is the dominant colour of floors and Asian-themed furniture, but red and blue lighting gives a funky, fun twist and there are touches of drama, like the dark red, full height curtain screening diners from the Knightsbridge traffic. The only discernible Buddha reference is a wall hung with a pattern of brassy sheet metal silhouettes, but the design centrepiece at this restaurant is the staircase’s two huge flanking dragons, each formed from hundreds of suspended glass beads on wires, reflecting the coloured lighting in myriad constellations.
After being shown to our seats, our waiter introduced himself as ‘Lucian with the solution’. This kind of friendly and hospitable service was to characterise the whole meal; Lucian did indeed have a wealth of enthusiastic recommendations and saw to our every need with charm and alacrity. Judging, quite correctly, that we were lovers of champagne, Lucian immediately provided us with flutes of Veuve Clicquot and a bowl of salted edamame to nibble while we considered our menu choices.
Our first course was fried duck and foie gras gyoza, that was very meaty and had the consistency inside of an excellent sausage, with a tangy sauce. Being suckers for squid (see what I did there?), we had also ordered the chilli salt crispy baby squid, which was gently spiced and cooked in a very light, crunchy batter – although it was so delicious that it didn’t have to retain the crunch very long!
We continued with a selection of sushi, selecting some suzuki (sea bass) and otoro (fatty, pink tuna). The suzuki had a very fresh, clean flavour and the otoro had a rather unexpected texture. The most prized tuna sushi cut, from the belly of the fish, it proved to be melt-in-the-mouth flesh with sinewy threads. After noticing that we were contemplating it, Lucian had insisted that we also try the ‘crunchy’ sushi.
This consisted of six rice balls topped with spicy sushi, three with salmon and three with tuna. The crunchy shell of the rice balls and the silky fish complemented each other very well and the gentle spice balanced the saltiness of a dip into some high quality soy sauce.
Spice fiends as we are, we felt that our tastebuds needed a little more fire and requested that one of our mains, wok-fried beef with Thai basil, was given an extra helping of chilli. Lucian was happy to oblige and I am certain that Buddha-Bar would be happy to accommodate all diner preferences where possible, a mark of truly customer-focused service. The beef was, indeed, nicely spicy, tender and the Thai herb flavours of basil and coriander were still gloriously potent. Our second main, Chilean sea bass, was perfectly cooked and served with a smooth and peppery golden carrot puree and a tangy tamarind sauce. The accompanying egg fried rice was also very good.
Although the portions were substantial, the continuing supply of champagne left us with a hankering for dessert. Spotting some interesting twists on the classics, Charlotte ordered the lime and ginger cheesecake with pineapple salsa, which proved to be a fine combination of sharp citrus and smooth creaminess, while I chose the a dark and opulent chocolate fondant with green tea ice cream. The fondant was very rich but, unusually (and much to my delight), neither the fondant nor the ice cream were particularly sweet – those with a sweet tooth might be wise to order something else.
The cocktail menu is highly creative and we felt it impossible to leave without sampling a couple of the more interesting inventions. Continuing our search for spices, we first chose two cocktails that contained chilli. Charlotte’s Jade Buko was a blend of Thai basil, Thai chili, lime juice, ginger liquor, coconut milk, Koko Kanu rum and ginger beer, which was creamy with a little kick. My Decanted Devil was presented in a very exciting manner, with an empty salt rimmed glass on one side of a tray and a corked decanter containing smoke, ice and the ingredients of my cocktail (Fresh jalapeno, Mezcal, Grand Marnier, fresh lime juice, jalapeno bitter) on the other. With the ice cooling the smoke in the decanter, Lucian was able to pour the smoke into my glass along with the cocktail; the aroma was incredible and, on tasting, the smokey flavour ran through the drink along with the punchy spices.
These unusual concoctions had piqued our interest and we decided to try another. This time, Charlotte’s choice was a Tokyo Old Fashioned, which was very strong, the Umeshu plum sugar and hint of chocolate bitters only serving to enhance the smokey flavour of Hibiki 12yr whisky. My choice, a Baobab Blazer, was made with Kenyan coffee beans, rum Zacapa, Pedro Ximenez, chocolate & orange bitter, so involved chocolate rather more noticeably. I would very happily have gone on ordering these (and maybe sampled a good few more from the menu) but it was time to face a world outside in which Lucian could not have all the solutions…
Spiritual nirvana, the freedom from desire and suffering, is probably not something that this restaurant can help you achieve. However, if you are looking for a brief respite from the concerns of daily life – or the desire from which you would most like to be free is the craving for delicious pan-Asian cuisine – Buddha-Bar London is definitely the place for you.
London SW1X 7PA