With the occasional poor choice aside (looking your way, Glasgow airport Wetherspoons), I love trying out a restaurant for the first time. Whether it’s because I’ve heard great things about the menu, the interior style and atmosphere, or simply because I’ve grown curious about it when passing by; there’s a lot to get excited about usually. However, I don’t think I’ve been more keen to try anywhere up until now than I was with Buddha Bar. Let’s face it, there’s a lot to get excited about here. Set in the heart of Knightsbridge, and a Winner of Best Restaurant Bar at the London Club and Bar Awards, Buddha Bar is a well known celebrity-spotting location. I may not be able to rub shoulders with London’s elite, but with Buddha Bar offering a fusion of Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Middle Eastern dishes, this restaurant sounded perfect for me.
Stepping inside, expanses of black and red surfaces, teamed with Oriental artwork and sculptures, create a feeling of far eastern intimacy. With the dimmed lighting in place, it was almost reminiscent of the Macau casino scene from Skyfall – granted, I can’t quite pull of the rakish James Bond look, but to have a restaurant instil a feeling of harmless fantasy that doesn’t feel like a gimmick is a very rare thing. Hanging crystal dragons on either side of the staircase, plus a hanging statue of Buddha made from a single piece of sheet metal are there to remind you that this may be a restaurant and bar, but it doesn’t really solely on tradition, but adds its own unique contemporary flourishes as well.
We were excited to see that the summer tasting menu offered a comprehensive variety of dishes, encompassing a great deal of flavours that spanned large portions of the map. When our first course of sushi came to the table, all of our friends’ praise about the quality of it at Buddha Bar was quickly proved totally correct. Although there is such a huge variety of sushi, when a simple, classic variation is perfectly made, it’s near impossible to beat. The salmon and avocado pieces served to us couldn’t be faulted – the fish itself was generously cut, and was remarkably soft given its thickness. There was no unwanted seasoning given to the salmon, which I’ve been disappointed to taste in lots of other establishments. Instead, the natural flavour of the rich pink cut was all that was needed. The avocado achieved something I rarely achieve while using it myself for cooking, in that it was perfectly ripe.
We had already started off with a glass of champagne, but we then saw that the menu came with an oriental iced tea as well. Topped with a pansy, the frosted glass blended from sparklingly clear down into a light pink. Upon trying it, we were greeted with a subtle taste of lychee which was absolutely perfect to not intrude too much of the flavours of the dishes being brought over to us.
When I saw that the next dish was a chicken salad, I was admittedly a little dubious. Such was the quality of the preceding sushi, I didn’t see how such a simple dish could compare. Of course, not being the brightest bulb sometimes, I didn’t appreciate that Buddha Bar wouldn’t allow for anything run of the mill to get onto its menu. The fact that it was a Chinese chicken salad was also a good indicator that the chefs had worked their magic into it. I can honestly say that this was the best salad I’d ever had. Instead of the dry, bland salads I’ve come to avoid elsewhere, this was made wonderfully moist by a dressing worked through it that was more than your standard Caesar. Hints of ginger and cracked pepper shone through, while the chicken itself was dealt out generously.
Buddha Bar, although priding itself on its tastes of the Orient, does delve into more western flavours, which was the case with our first main. Beef tartar with a Dijon mustard and honey glaze came beautifully and simply presented. This is a dish that isn’t a common site in restaurants, least of all in ones that also serve far eastern recipes. Mixing cuisines is clearly no issue here though, as the beef was of the highest quality, with the glaze providing a subtle bite to lift the dish.
Our second main brought vibrant colours with a real kick to boot! Sea bass, on a bed of pak choi, topped with a chilli sauce. The redness of the chilli over the fish really was a sight to behold – upon tasting it, we were thankful that it wasn’t as spicy as it looked! The heat built up after every bite, but it also had a rich sweetness to it which put the brakes on the chilli enough to let the subtle saltiness of the sea bass come through. In terms of the fish, here was another case of only the very freshest ingredients being used – any light catching the scales resulted in a noticeable gleam from them, while the flakes of the fish were brilliantly white.
Moving on to dessert, it’s always difficult to resist a chocolate option. Our first choice was a chocolate pudding on a biscuit base, served with berry compote and slices of starfruit. With a thick consistency not unlike fondant, our spoons sank easily into it and through the base, which had the taste of a luxurious digestive biscuit. The chocolate was rich and dark (without being bitter), and pairing it with the compote resulted in a fantastic collection of textures, and a taste that put us in mind of dipping fruits into chocolate on a lazy afternoon.
To bring our lunch to a close, we ended with a little bit of British tradition. Like some kind of gloriously Wimbledon-esque Vienetta, we were served sweet crackers arranged in layers, with thick cream and fresh halved strawberries between them. Like the sushi to start with, this may have been simple, but it was done so well.
As with some other restaurants around London, Buddha Bar’s location and dedication to both innovation on the menu, and creating a sense of real atmosphere and style inside, may discourage people with the notion of prohibitive pricing. This is simply not the case here. To get to sample such bold fusions in their dishes, the freshest of ingredients, all in a setting like this and to pay relatively little for it, Buddha Bar is actually something of a bargain. Not once did the menu seem rushed, or padded out, but rather like the chefs have real excitement in what they do. You may not go at the right time to see any celebrities there, but when the whole experience is as arresting as this, you really won’t care.
Buddha-Bar Restaurant London
145 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7PA