55-57 Exmouth Market London EC1R 4QL
Bonnie Gull Cafe is the spin off, or “sister” restaurant to the Fitzrovia branch. This location is much larger and …Rating:
Bonnie Gull Cafe is the spin off, or “sister” restaurant to the Fitzrovia branch. This location is much larger and in a hip little section on Exmouth Market near that cool Brazilian bar and Momo’s. The Soho branch is literally hidden away on a grey empty corner, so the location is a much needed improvement. I also like how this one has little outside café tables which seems more “seaside”.
London is going a little crazy with the fresh clean seafood themed spots. I am not complaining, I love it, but it makes the stakes high for the guys opening them. We have the classics- like Scott’s and JSheekey, and even the Cow over in Notting Hill. Then we have the ever expanding Wright’s Brothers and of course Hawksmoor Air. So there is quite a bit of competition. The other problem is, all of this kind of same- day- fresh- seafood themed places come at a hefty price, so there is not a lot of room for forgiving. And with competition high, it makes it even more so. I am sad to say it, but Bonnie Gull Café just seemed like a missed attempt to do more of what a lot of others are already doing.
I found the dining room to be quite cold in feeling, particularly for a “seaside” experience. It is not unpleasant, but it seems somehow to lack any soul. Also, the acoustics were almost unbearable. We had been seated next to a large group of cackling women, some kind of hen do I gathered, and we could barely hear ourselves speak. But then they also had some sort rather wanky music on the loud speaker, which made it seem like we were in “Costa” having lattes, not an expensive seafood Café. The nautical theme obviously was fitting and not offensive in anyway, but it struck me as un-genuine and a touch “went to hardware store and painted the walls myself” kind of thing.
Our waitress, who was very lovely…a bit “Amelie”-ish and with a big winning smile, approached us, and definitely brought some much needed warmth our way. She was very knowledgable about the oysters and the menu.
We started with two cocktails, the Ginger Julip and a classic Negroni. The Julip was very gingery and very icey, but the mint took over. It was served in very cool silver glass though, I just wished it wasn’t so mint tea-ish. Not bad, just seemed a little sloppy in deliverance. My date’s negroni was good though, classic, bitter, and strong. The wine list was rather nice, lots of good choices in the medium price range, which was refreshing against the high prices of the food. We had a lovely Burgundy for 36 quid, which I felt was a very good price for such a big developed wine.
We decided to try the oysters, as this can sometimes be the rule of thumb for places like this. First, however, we were given a basket of rather stale soft bread, served with no olive oil or butter. It seemed a little sad and a precursor of what was to come. If you cant do it right, alleviate. They had a selection of five different varieties, and we chose the Dorset Blue Rock, the Portland Pearl AAA Rock, and the Porthilly Rock. The Dorset and Portland Oysters were massive and almost made my date choke. Literally. They were both a bit on the bitter side as well, quite mineraly backnotes that was overwhelming. Oysters this size are better dressed as it is just too big of a mouthful to go through…But I did rather like the Porthilly, as they were smaller and much more delicate with a nutty and creamy taste that was both elegant and oceanic.
Next came our starters. We had the trout, which was perfectly cooked and everything you want it to be- soft, salty, and smoky. But somehow it was too simple within the dish as a whole. There were some bland white beans, a bit of steamed spinach and a touch of oil. No herbs, no sauce, no imagination. And it made me bored. We also had the mackerel. First of all the skin was not crispy, which is always a disappointment when it come to this kind of fish, as the oily skin of mackerel is the best part. Here it was soggy and ignored. Not to mention the fish was also undercooked. The seasoning was simply non-existent. There was an oval mound of mackerel tartar on the dish as well, which seemed like a mushy afterthought, although it looked nice enough. It just had no flavor. Mackerel is big and bold and in your face no? The dish itself was very fresh, and had a sort of elegance to it…but like the dining room, it lacked character, excitement, soul…some simple seasoning and fresh herbs would have really lent a hand.
We shared our main, which was the Grey Mullet. You don’t see this on the menus much and it is in season, so I thought I would have a go. Again, zero seasoning. I understand things in a “seaside” café should be simple, but salt and pepper can and should be used. Once we added some salt, the fish perked up quite a bit. There was a lovely sprinkling of almonds, which gave it a nice texture and crunch. It was seated on a bed of potato mash, which just tasted like a baked potato- mashed. Then there was some sort of tasteless spinach slash sauce to the side, which was creamy but again very bland. The dish just needed some love. We had a side to go with the main, and my date chose the slaw. It was slightly tangy a touch of vinegar and oil, but no mayo. It was white cabbage with bits of sea greens scattered about. Seasoning and Spirit a far distant cousin. Yawn.
We finished with two very bitter espressos, which is always irritating, and then asked for the check. For two starters, two cocktails, one main, one side, and a bottle of good wine, we paid about 70 pounds a head. I just found it quite overpriced…for simple uncomplicated badly cooked dishes? I would like to give Bonnie Gull another chance- particularly because I had had such a lovely experience at the tiny “sister” outlet. But I am not sure if this past experience was a witness to growing pains or perhaps it’s just a lack of understanding that simple food does not have to lack in soul and seasoning.