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WLC Eats: BiBi

Douglas Blyde headed to BiBi where he found a ‘sweet-smelling’ venue serving drinks including vintage perry and biodynamic wine alongside dishes described as ‘little ugly meatballs’.

(Credit: Anton Rodriguez)

“BiBi’s chef, Chet Sharma, is a trained physicist who worked at the Ledbury, Gymkhana and Moor Hall before becoming JKS’s head of menu development. He is part genius and clearly part subversive, as are all the best people to leave in charge of your dinner,” summarised Grace Dent in The Guardian. Meanwhile, Fay Maschler explained the meaning of BiBi in Tatler, being “an Urdu honorific which can  roughly translate as ‘the lady of the house’, frequently a grand­mother.”

Design

The recipient of Restaurant of the Year 2022 from both GQ and Square Meal, and Opening of the Year (National Restaurant Awards), BiBi is another hit from the mighty JKS restaurant collection which also comprises, in London, the one-Michelin-starred Trishna and Lyle’s, and two-starred Kitchen Table and Gymkhana – the latter replicated in Riyadh. Formerly a Bread Ahead pop-up, BiBi brings substantial detail within a small frame,  making use of every inch of a corner site close to Selfridge’s.

The sweet-smelling venue collages just 31 covers on banquettes below tall windows and at higher swivelling chairs, their backs lined with pashmina shawls. Those meet a mango wood counter facing the fire of an infinitely adjustable focal charcoal grill, placed where a staircase once descended. A display of golden teapots beckons the eye at the far end of the room beside an icy crib for wines by the glass. The artwork includes an abstract portrait of one of Sharma’s grandmothers by Ealing artist Laura Wickstead. Featuring the likes of “3005” (Childish Gambino), and “It’s A Shame” (The Spinners) the soundtrack is authored by Sharma who performed at Ministry of Sound to support his university studies.

Drinks

(Sandalwood Manhattan. Credit: Anton Rodriguez)

Like a writer prescribed a word count, BiBi’s 66 bin list is constrained by space. Bins, which rarely feature overt oak, are focused by head of beverage for JKS, Seamus Sharkey, whose CV includes head sommelier roles at The Nut Tree, Hampton Manor, Story, then The Ledbury. By the Nude Stem Zero glass, options range from the 2020 Milleuve Borgo del Tiglio Friulano from former pharmacist, Nicola Manferrari (£11/125ml), which represents one of only three Italian wines, to the confusingly named Château La Grave Figeac 2018. Actually from Saint-Emilion (£18), it includes a portion of fruit from centennial Cabernet Franc vines.

Rather than offer English sparkling wine, Sharkey lists “Shhh”, a vintage Perry from 60-year-old trees, their fruit left to the benevolent mercy of native yeasts (£7.50/150ml). The only other sparkling option by the glass is the grown-up Pol Roger white foil (£20). Pol continues by the bottle in the form of 2015 Cuvée Winston Churchill at around twice mark-up (£490). Elsewhere in the group, if in a party spirit, you can sample Pol alongside “Thums Up” Cola in the revving “Cokeagne” cocktail at 42 Bar above Gymkhana.

Still wines by the bottle range from the Rioja Alavesa, Tentenublo 2020 (£60) from collector of plots, Roberto Oliván, being but one of three Spanish options, to dignified Château Léoville Barton 1995 (£320) which Jancis Robinson MW once called “rigid”, striking us as a possible backhanded compliment. In between, we encounter the appropriately named 2022 Bibi, a biodynamic Mondeuse/Gamay from Savoie  (Domaine Partagé) at £82, the extremely hard-to-find Guillaume Sergent Blanc Le Clos des Croix, being a white 2018 Coteaux Champenois from a producer who tends just 1.5ha of vineyards across eight parcels (£150) which we would very much like to return to liberate, to Diana Madelaine [sic] Cullen Cabernet 2007 at £275.

Creations from the bar include the Monsoon martini perfumed with ambrette, and clarified with bentonite. In terms of white spirits, despite the presence of a Goan gin, we advise against ordering it with tonic. As per the words of the drinks list, “India has a long but less-storied history with alcohol… British colonial presence in India during the Victorian era played a significant role in shaping a growing drinking culture across the country… No cocktail better exemplified this history than the ‘Gin and Tonic,’ originally developed in India as a way to make quinine (used to treat malaria) more palatable by mixing it with gin and soda water. This drink eventually became a staple of colonial-era cocktail culture in India. Which is exactly why we don’t feature one on our list.”

Best enjoyed as an acute espresso, coffee beans are sourced from Mysore then roasted to BiBi’s recipe in London.

Dishes

(Image of Chet Sharma: (C) Anton Rodriguez)

Forced to spend his childhood indoors due to a lung condition, Chet Sharma read voraciously; despite the slight footprint, there is even a library shoehorned between bar and kitchen at BiBi. Such a thirst for knowledge saw him excel academically, securing a place at UCL to read chemistry, then neurology, segueing to Oxford to complete a masters in physics, then a DPhil in condensed metaphysics. And physics, he says, brings “structure” to the kitchen. He also watched his grandmothers cook, inspiring him to undertake stages and roles in the likes of Mugaritz, and subsequently name this special restaurant after the matriarchs.

Visiting during a typically busy service, highlights from the chef’s selection lunch menu realised by Sharma, head chef, Ashkan Ashtari, and head pastry chef, Irene Giora, included tender, raw bream with peach. Ceviche-like, this was dressed with a lemonade-esque, spiced “nimbu” (lemon) “pani” (water), best approached with the mother-of-pearl spoon which rested on a clay stand shaped by Sharma’s own hand. Alongside, Ethiopian-born head sommelier, Nabil Munir chose 2022 Lindi Carien Chenin, Verdelho, Colombard, Grenache, and Palomino (Lourens Family Wines). This fulsome, honeyed, unlikely assembly is named after the wife of winemaker, Franco Lourens who appears on the label.

Next, subject to half an hour in the fridge, Munir optimistically paired a slightly stalky, graphite-scented, silky red, being 2021 Barda Patagonian Pinot Noir from altitude from Marchese Piero Incisa della Rocchetta’s Bodega Chacra, with the reduced, clarified, almost gingerbread scented tomato pav bhaji component of Orkney scallop, served in the shell. This particularly successful dish came with a nigella and fennel seed topped bread to absorb the sauce, made from lemon brioche formed from the trim of paneer.

(Credit: Anton Rodriguez)

Galouti, or “little ugly meatballs” joked the manager, were shaped from “retired” dairy goats. Allegedly deriving from a recipe created for a meat-loving Nawab of Lucknow whose teeth had fallen out, these comforting orbs spread like pâté and worked with the meal’s second South African wine, being Pieter Walser’s Master of None 2022. Again, rather anarchically, this forced grapes to make friends outside of their social circle, being Grenache, Cinsault, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Fernao Pires, Chenin Blanc, Palomino, and Riesling. The engaging potion evoked capsicum-scented strawberry juice. Another fine pairing.

Rather than honouring his grandmothers, the last savoury dish, Sharmaji’s Lahori chicken, honoured chef’s grandfather. Sharma elucidates: “The whole restaurant was named BiBi after my grandmothers, so at least my grandfather got one of our most sought-after dishes named after him. Based on his stories of pre-partition Lahore, he didn’t really like speaking much about his childhood – obviously a painful time for people on both sides of the partition – but the one thing he would speak about fondly was a kebab vendor who made this dish with chicken, fenugreek, cashew and yoghurt. Served most regularly with yakhni pulao rice and grass-fed ghee dal. Yakhni means ‘stock’, so ours is made with chicken stock.”

Alongside the juiciest chicken imaginable, bathed in rich, roasted whey sauce, with bravely, thoroughly flavoursome hot pickled red chillies on the side, Munir chose the gently oak-kissed 2022 Chardonnay, Land of Saints from Santa Barbara – named after the patron saint of architects, mathematicians, chemical engineers, and prisoners. It brought notes of “buttered popcorn, honeysuckle, and washed almonds,” said Munir.

The meal’s final pairing was also its best, combining a strawberry and coconut basundi with the exhilarating 2020 ungrafted Mosel Riesling Spätlese from septuagenarian brothers, Alfred and Rolf Merkelbach – the only wine today from Europe.

Last Word

(Credit: Mark Scott)

Far from blowsy, BiBi’s bijou wine list, elegantly interpreted by Munir, elevated dishes which combined the precision of scientist, Sharma, with the clear soulfulness borne of a familial culinary upbringing. The challenge, vinously, will lie in how spent lines are ruthlessly replaced with wines which are equally as engaging while still offering value.

Best for:

  • Wines showing interest around the £80 mark
  • Detailed decor
  • Comforting, yet meticulous, distinctive cooking

Value: 93, Size: 84, Range: 92, Originality: 93, Experience: 96; Total: 91.6

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