It came about halfway through our meal at Bandol: just as my succulent rack of lamb touched down on our table: that moment when you realise everything is going to be ok. When you realise that the excellence running from the amuse bouche through to the main courses is going to continue all the way to the coffee and petit fours. You’re in good hands. You can relax.
Ultimately, you go to a good restaurant for the same reason you go to a top-draw football match or to the opera: to experience pure, top-of-their-game excellence. Bandol, a French restaurant inspired by the Mediterranean seaside town of the same name, is entirely excellent, from the ingredients to the staff. Recently opened in one of Chelsea’s most respectable districts, it serves the kind of composed, intelligent and unassuming food of which any street would be proud, no matter how well-to-do. It’s a neighbourhood restaurant with international pedigree, where hearty traditional dishes rub shoulders with flourishes of haute cuisine extravagance.
From the moment you enter, you can sense a sincere determination to get things right. It helps that the place itself is wholly charming; an understated, classic brasserie style cleverly centred around an olive tree, whose dusty green leaves spread a sense of calmness and grandeur. Vines clasp at the bare-brick walls, blue cushions sit upon the wooden chairs, and a yawning skylight brings the vastness of the night to the dinner table. It’s a bit like dining in the tasteful country villa of an aspirational Roman senator.
Since Bandol itself is on the Mediterranean coast, much of the menu is predicated around fish and seafood, contributing to the sense of lightness and rejuvenation introduced by the decor. The atmosphere is cracking: on the Tuesday night of our visit, every single table was occupied. Clearly good news spreads fast in Chelsea.
Each of our three starters has us wishing that they were main courses. Burrata, the gooey heart of mozzarella served with cherry tomatoes in a stonkingly good olive oil, instantly confirms that this is a kitchen armed with superb ingredients. Slice the burrata like a marshmallow and revel in the stringy, silky interior. Simple, breezy flavours, united intelligently: it’s a microcosm of Bandol in a single dish.
Before we get too carried away on the mozzarella, veal carpaccio – the waiter’s recommendation – casually vaults ahead in our which-is-the-best-starter debate. With a surprisingly meaty kick for such a razor thin cut, the umami flavours are amplified by the clever addition of parmesan shavings, truffle and more olive oil. It’s a carnival of savouriness, and we love every morsel of it.
Once again, it’s surpassed, this time by a black ink risotto served with squid rings. Gasps of admiration scarcely capture the extent of our pleasure: this is the kind of meal you look back on, weeks and weeks later, salivating and wistful, vowing to return. Threaded with savoury curls of squid and topped with lemon, it’s a dish which balances sweet and savoury exquisitely. It helps that the risotto rice itself is of a very high quality, robust and fine. By the time we scoop up the last treacle-coloured spoonful, we’re all smiles.
Our mains are both knockouts, though by this point we’re not surprised. My rack of lamb is perfect, crispy on the outside and blushing pink within. Meanwhile my partner’s duck confit is as good a demonstration of canard as you’ll find on this side of the channel; subtle, sweet and delicate. Bandol’s formidable range of wine, including a some game-changing organic labels, are ably matched to the courses by the attentive and generous waiting staff.
Dessert is a chance for Bandol to go out with a flourish. Traditional French desserts are thankfully present and correct, with an ambrosial Tart Tropezienne the stand-out dish, its delicate flavour reminiscent of the very best brioche. A well-chosen set of dessert wines adds to the decadence; a Sicilian Marsala has an unforgettable bouquet of fresh peaches and the taste to back it up. It’s all so hard to resist.
And that’s the thing about Bandol: it’s the perfect place to treat yourself. It has that unmistakable air of success, and deservedly so. Undeniably good ingredients, a lovely dining room, and an inventive menu which perfectly poises familiarity with exoticism. Which, when you think about it, is why we love France in the first place.