Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cassis Bistro

Given that I wrote recently that I'm not greatly fussed about new restaurants per se, it might come as a surprise to find me writing, once again, about somewhere that's barely been open a fortnight. It shouldn't however, as the new opening in question is Cassis Bistro, which on paper ticks all the same boxes as the last one, Cigalon, and indeed offers the same cuisine, Provencal. If (either of my) regular readers are worried that this review of a new Provencal restaurant will just be a rehash of the last, let me assure you now that the two restaurants - and I hope the two reviews - are very different, albeit almost equally as good.

Cassis is the latest addition to the gradually-expanding Marlon Abela Restaurant Company (MARC) which includes private members club Morton's, ultra-expensive, Michelin starred Umu and The Greenhouse in London as well as upscale Italian A Voce in New York - London gets a branch in 2011 - and a couple of other high-end bistros on America's East Coast. MARC clearly positions itself at the premium level of the hospitality industry  - a prestige marque, one might say - which puts a lot of pressure on the team at Cassis to get things very right from the get-go. On the evidence of what I saw - and ate - they've succeeded.

You can tell that MARC mean business with this venture from the address alone; Cassis occupies an expensive, expansive plot on the swishest stretch of Brompton Road leading up to Brompton Cross, where Ralph Lauren rubs shoulders with Chanel. Design-wise Cassis is clearly intended to appeal to the people who populate that kind of boutique; the look is bistro de luxe, with populist touches - specials chalked on blackboards, monochrome prints of Parisian cafe scenes - nestled alongside discreetly expensive furniture and classy modern art by Julian Opie and Gary Hume. Warm honey hues throughout and cute zinc pots of herbs on the tables make for a cosy, cosseting space, made even more so by a festive open fire which was most welcome on the sub-zero day on which we visited.

My lunch date was my friend Matt Bramford, a graphic designer and sometime fashion editor (it was his cultured eye that identified the art) with whom I was seeking sustenance before an assault on Harrods. Hurried shoppers, ladies-who-lunch and busy businessmen will appreciate the two- or three-course set menu at £18/£20, but we decided to indulge ourselves and splash out on the a la carte (well, it is Christmas). As well as traditional starters there's a list of petites bouchées - 'little mouthfuls'  - such as tapenade and p
issaladière which would be fun for sharing, but we just grazed on the abundant, excellent bread selection while sipping a Kir Royale and deciding what to order.

The starters we eventually chose - delayed partly through indecision and partly through endless gossiping - were fantastic. Matt's pumpkin soup with chestnuts and Provencal goat's cheese was as thick and velvety as a theatre curtain, the cheese adding bite and the chestnuts texture, served attractively in a heavy lidded terracotta dish. My grilled stuffed squid, piquillo pepper and passata sauce was in fact a brace of baby squid, char-grilled to perfect smoky tenderness and filled with a lovely salty farce of peppers, herbs and rice. The accompanying tentacles had been flamed to a moreish subtle crispiness; with a lick of the rich passata sauce they would, I thought, make a brilliant bar snack by themselves.

My main course of veal kidneys, violet mustard sauce and raisins was wonderful, the tender kidneys cooked until only just pink and the slick sweetness of the gravy balanced out by the tang of plump raisins. A small helping of mange tout was a welcome inclusion, their crunch and earthy flavour complementing the rich softness of the rest of the dish. 
I noted at the time that the sauce tasted neither of violets nor mustard; later research revealed that violet mustard does not do exactly what it says on the jar but is actually an aromatic, violet-coloured relish made with mustard seeds and grape must. Whatever; the sauce was delicious.

Matt's roast Landes duck breast  - cooked astutely, the skin crisp, the flesh tender, bathing in a luxurious cassis sauce - was exceptional and would have induced plate envy had my own choice not been so good. We agreed with hindsight that side orders of rich creamy polenta were just a little too much; one to share would have been enough.

 Filling up nicely but still with room for a little something, we shared three cheeses (bigger appetites can choose to have five) which came with a very tasty chutney and really wonderful honey and fig bread. The waitress could only tell us what two of the three were - a 
chêvre cendré and a Tomme - but all were very good.

They certainly went well with the last of our bottle of Gamay de Touraine, Chezelles 2009, a light, elegant red which had proved more than a match for the rich flavours and textures of our meal. At £25 it was also good value and one of many similarly affordable wines on the mostly-French list; prices start as low as £19 and go up as high as one's pockets are deep. A charming and personable
ère is on hand to provide guidance where needed and wine is poured only when the imminent emptiness of the glass requires it.

Service was just about faultless in terms of courtesy and timing but staff seemed a little stiff, even nervous of each other at times, which wouldn't feel out of place in a more formal restaurant but does in what is meant to be a bistro. I'm sure that this will pass as everyone settles in and gets to know each other. That said, Cassis is really only a bistro in name; not having tablecloths, and glass panels etched with French food terms - the only design detail I really didn't like - do not a bistro make and I think that before long Cassis will acquire a well-deserved reputation as a high-end, high-quality destination restaurant rather than the casual, drop-in-anytime kind of place it asserts itself to be. Either way, it certainly hits its mark.

Cassis Bistro, 232-236 Brompton Road, London SW3 2BB Tel: 020 7581 1101 

Cassis on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bob Bob Ricard, Soho

When a couple of years ago I moaned to a psychotherapist friend of mine that a loved one seemed never to share my excitement and joy when nice things happened to me or to others, and in fact often tried to detract from them, he explained to me the principle of something called 'destructive envy'. Put as simply as possible (as anything needs to be for me to understand it), destructive envy is the urge which leads someone to seek to destroy or devalue that which he does not or can not have himself, even though he may not consciously intend to do so. The most obvious example is the toddler who, rather than sharing another's shiny new toy, will instead try to smash it against the nursery wall.

It was destructive envy on my part that prevented me, until last Thursday, from setting foot over the threshold of Bob Bob Ricard. Such had been the incessant outpouring of praise and hyperbole from bloggers and Twitterers since its 2008 opening that I had not wanted to try it for myself, perhaps fearing that I too would get sucked up into the hysteria. Far from wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I got so sick of hearing about the place that the last thing I wanted to do was actually go there.

I could resist no longer however when the call came telling me that my great pal and neighbour Lady Lavinia Blundell-White, formerly of my home-from-home Dean Street Townhouse, had been poached  from there to be the hostess of Bobby's Bar, the truly stunning bar downstairs from the restaurant. Invited by Lavinia to come and see her new playground for myself, I went along one evening after work fully expecting just to stay for one drink, maybe two, before leaving; I left four hours later, stuffed full of food, rather tipsy, £135 lighter of pocket and utterly, utterly smitten.

It all began when Leonid Shutov, the charismatic (to say the least) co-owner told me that no, I could not have the Martini I had ordered, but could have a glass of each of two of the finest and most expensive vodkas, along with accompanying zakuski, on the house. The zakuski - little bites of food intended to titillate the tastebuds after they have been awakened by the vodka - were lovely, a neat tower of Russian salad topped with shaved black truffle and rather more prosaically, a couple of lengths of sweet and sour pickled cucumber.

My palate thus sharpened and mood thus enhanced, something in my brain just popped and I decided that what I really wanted was not only to stay, but to stay for ten grams of Iranian caviar with blinis and sour cream, which BBR proudly serves at prices which must barely make a profit - £16.75 in this case. Another shot of vodka was, of course, needed to help the precious eggs down.

At this point I could have left, shaken some hands, told everyone what a lovely time I'd had and disappeared into the night. Could have, but didn't; instead, a Negroni was ordered and a table for one booked upstairs for a little bite of dinner. The Negroni was a disappointment - over-stirred so as to be too diluted, taking away the mighty kick which this cocktail usually serves - but a follow up dry Martini (Leonid's back being turned at this point) made with the house Russian Standard vodka hit the spot most precisely.

Upstairs in the utterly bonkers but beautiful dining room, all teal leather booths, marble counters and neo-baronial portraiture, I settled into a banquette and drank in the buzz. There's a pace and energy to Bob Bob Ricard that for many would be too much; sedate it ain't but it's fun if you like that sort of thing. Also great fun is the menu, which is made up for the most part of familiar British staples with pride taken in provenance, but with a scattering of Russian favourites to add colour. I decided to go for a red meat blow-out and ordered venison steak tartare to start followed by O'Shea's beef onglet with caramelised onions and green peppercorn sauce. Oh, and a glass of Merlot as of course by this stage I'd barely had a drop to drink.

My starter was very good but lacked oomph; using venison instead of beef steak is a nice idea but the comparative mildness of uncooked deer to raw cow calls for more seasoning to make the dish really sing. There was absolutely no faulting the onglet however; steak of the very highest quality, cooked perfectly (medium-rare to allow for onglet's natural slight toughness) and served with a lovely heap of sweet, gooey red onions caramelised to a point just short of collapsing into a sauce but leaving enough bite to serve as a vegetable. That a relatively cheap cut such as this can taste so good makes me wonder even more for the sanity of people queuing up to hand over two or even three times this dish's £18.50 price tag for a smaller portion of a supposedly superior steak in one of London's increasing number of vulgar 'high-end' steak-houses (a trend which, as may be apparent, I have no taste for).

Although I'd have liked to try one of the comforting-sounding old school desserts - Bramley apple pie say, or knickerbocker glory - my appetite just about failed me so I made do with an excellent affogato and a glass of tremendous, gasp-inducingly good Chateau Rieussec 1er Cru Sauternes 2003. Priced at £11.75 this was an expensive treat but, like the caviar, defiantly less marked up than at just about anywhere else. Bob Bob Ricard embellishes the wine list with cheeky pop-out boxes informing diners how much more expensive some wines are at other restaurants; it's a cunning idea, the apparent altruism of which suddenly makes £331 for a bottle of Bâtard Montrachet seem a complete steal and must lure many a punter into spending far more than they ever intended to.

Photo by Paul Winch-Furness
Oh - oh like ME for example! Yes, this epic tipsy Bacchanal  - somewhere along the way a glass of Chablis snuck its way in, and I managed a (wonderful) cucumber Martini as a nightcap - rang up a bill of £135, by no means the most I've spent on a night out but certainly a record for a solo session that was only ever meant to last one drink. I don't begrudge a penny of it; there's some alchemy in the mix of bonkers room, discounted luxury, lovely service (from deferential staff in kooky kandy-kolored blazers) and splendid food that makes one want to linger and if that means clocking up a humdinger of a bill then so be it.

It's not perfect; for a restaurant proud of its wine list the selection available by the glass or carafe is weak, and for every attractive touch (table-side sockets so useful for charging one's phone; exquisite loos) there's a borderline naff gimmick (silly 'Press for Champagne' buttons in every booth; an irritating website). But it is very good, fairly priced, and its owners are among the nicest, most decent people you could hope to meet; the hype is no more than Bob Bob Ricard deserves. Some professional critics have been at best luke-warm and at worst exaggeratedly excoriating about it. I can only attribute that to destructive envy, and advise them to try sharing their toys.

Bob Bob Ricard, 1 Upper James Street, London W1F 9DF Tel: 020 3145 1000 
Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Cigalon, Chancery Lane

Unlike professional restaurant critics - and, it would seem, an increasing number of bloggers - I never eat anywhere just because it is new. For one thing, London has far too many established restaurants that I've yet to try, and for another, I have my favourite places to which I prefer to return again and again knowing that I'll have a good time, rather than chance my arm - and money - on a newcomer just for the sake of novelty.

To get me through the doors of a new restaurant, it needs to be offering a cuisine I like (or like the sound of), have something unique or at least unusual about it and be in a reasonably accessible location - I have never been, and will most likely never go, to Petersham Nurseries Cafe for example. Good word of mouth - as distinct from just good, or numerous, reviews - also helps.

Cigalon, the just-opened Provencal restaurant and grill on Chancery Lane, ticks every box. Cuisine I like? Check - I love French food and especially that of Provence, with its emphasis on herbs and vegetables. Something unique about it? Check - the name, humorous and deeply ironic for reasons I'll explain later. Good location? Check - a brisk ten minute stroll from the office. And good word of mouth? Check - Cigalon was suggested to me by a respected restaurateur, which is just the kind of recommendation I trust. So completely did Cigalon meet all my criteria that I took a gamble on it being just the place for a (very) pre-Christmas dinner with the gang of old school friends who I meet up with a few times a year. It was a gamble that paid off very well indeed.

Even from the outside, Cigalon is a lovely little place. Young olive trees flank a pristine, uplit arcaded frontage, from which hang smart painted signs announcing the restaurant and its lively sibling basement bar, Baranis. It was here that we enjoyed some excellent pre-dinner cocktails, mixed by cute, cheeky staff before heading upstairs to the restaurant. We were welcomed warmly and shown into the show-stopper dining room; once an auction house (and latterly, if memory serves from my few years working in the area, a wine bar-cum-burger joint), the small but high-ceilinged room has been done out in warm pastels and creamy off white, with striking striped banquettes running the length of each side wall. Along the centre of the room, at the end of which stands the open kitchen, are four circular lilac booths which look for all the world like luxuriously upholstered waltzers, and above them vast, undulating iron light-fittings resembling Eliza Doolittle's Ascot Opening Day hat.

Between eight of us we managed to sample a good range of dishes from the concise but varied menu. Six choices are available for both Les Entrees (starters) and Les Plats (mains), as well as four Grillades et Speciaux (Grills and Specials). Of the four starters we tried by far the best was the braised Camargue beef canneloni with red wine sauce and bone marrow, perfectly al dente pasta encasing a rich sweet filling. Grilled sardines Escabeche and creamy polenta with wild mushrooms and rocket were also very good, using excellent fresh produce and elegantly plated. Portions were on the generous side of just-right and pricing very fair at £6-£7 each.

Main courses were similarly pleasing, if in a few cases on the bijou side. Roast rabbit leg with Swiss chard and savoury jus, and whole mackerel with salsa verde and fennel, were both of superb quality and bursting with flavour but looked miserly on the plate. Side orders had in fairness been offered, but perhaps it would have been more helpful if their necessity had been made clear. Much more successful was an ample rib of veal with Mentonaise sauce and chick pea fritters, actually more like chunky chips and well-suited to mopping up the citrus and olive-infused sauce in which the tender, adeptly-cooked meat had been bathed.

Desserts were a real highlight. Caramelized orange mousse and fiadone - traditional Corsican cheese and lemon cake, were neat, sweet little roundels of citrusy delight, the latter accented beautifully by a scoop of blackberry and lavender sorbet. A bitter chocolate tart, subtly scented with aniseed and served with a quenelle of salty, smooth goat's curd, was a delicious balancing act of complementary flavours. Good, strong coffee and hot chocolate served very attractively in a silver-plate cup revived us after the several bottles of Domaine Ile St Pierre white and La Traversiere red which we had polished off over the course of our three courses.

Our enjoyment of this delicious food was further enhanced by absolutely delightful service from a brigade who couldn't be more French if they were made of Brie. The lilac ties, worn by all the men in reference to the lavender of Provence, are as charming a uniform as I can remember seeing. The perfect end to the evening was that our bill, for three courses, abundant wine, coffees and service, came to only just over £40 a head.

I promised to tell you about the humour of the name. Cigalon is a wonderful film by the great French director Marcel Pagnol, about a grand chef who opens a restaurant in a small Provencal village. Considering himself - and his cuisine - to be superior to the simple local folk, Cigalon makes no effort to attract custom and his restaurant remains defiantly empty. It is not a fate which will befall its Chancery Lane namesake.

Cigalon, 115 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PP Tel: 020 7242 8373
Le Cigalon on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cecconi's, Mayfair

If you were to put a gun to my head  - and I'd really rather you didn't as it's just a figure of speech - I would say that Italian is my favourite food. Not only 'favourite' in that I eat it most often, but also in that it is the cuisine for which I feel the most affection and enthusiasm.

One of my earliest culinary memories is of my mum eating a plate of something terribly exotic-looking (at least to my three-year-old eyes) which turned out to be spaghetti bolognese and would be my first taste of 'foreign' cuisine. My ultimate comfort food when ill, depressed or down-hearted is tortellini in brodo from a recipe taught to me by an Italian ex. And when a couple of years ago I took a grown-up gap year and buggered off to eat my way around Europe and beyond for a few months, it was The Boot which won hands down for the quality, variety and memorability of the food on offer. There are many other cuisines that I like very much, but it's Italian I like the most.

Now, brace yourselves for another revelation but I think I also have a new favourite restaurant. Cecconi's, the perennially-popular trattoria on Burlington Gardens, is so bloody good that since my recent dinner there I haven't stopped raving about it, have been recommending it to everyone, and simply can't wait to go back. If you're sufficiently interested to know what it is about the place that's got me so worked up  - and you were prepared to put a gun to my head to find out my favourite food let's not forget, so I'm guessing that you are - it can be explained in a very small nutshell: Cecconi's does everything that one would expect of a restaurant very well indeed.

To begin with there's the physical appearance of the restaurant itself. It's located on a corner of a very smart Mayfair block, behind Ralph Lauren's flagship megastore, across from the elegant Burlington Arcade and adjacent to Savile Row. The frontage is made up entirely of high french windows which allow a clear view of the inviting dimly-lit room within, but once inside far from feeling like being in a goldfish bowl one feels warm and cosseted, and the outside world feels far away. The interior's a beauty, incredibly luxurious - all huge ornamental crystal mirrors, dark wood, green leather chairs and vast velvet banquettes - but not flashy or over-the-top, the monochromed tiled floors and low light tempering, without obscuring, the opulence.

Then there's the terrific service from super-friendly, super-committed staff, from the greeter's enthusiastic 'Buona sera!' to general manager Giacomo Maccioni's beaming tableside banter and each and every waiter's courtesy and attentiveness. When we (being best pal Andrew and I) asked our waiter for his recommendations, he didn't just rattle off the dishes he'd been told to push that night as happens in many establishments; instead he asked us pertinent questions such as how hungry were we, and did we like this or that, before making his measured suggestions. Wine is left for guests to pour themselves, tap water is served in attractive but also highly practical tall jugs and dishes come out from the kitchen at exactly the right intervals demonstrating that things run as well behind the scenes as they do front of house.

And of course, there's the food - the wonderful, delicious, and  - I use the word with the thunking great caveat that I base this only on my knowledge and personal experience, not any purported expertise - authentic, Italian food. To start with we shared a house selection of cured meats, bruschette and cicheti (which, until the arrival of Polpo and Polpetto, Cecconi's claimed to be the only restaurant in London to serve) and a plate of vitello tonnato. Both were stunningly good, the highlights of the selection, all of which was excellent, being peppery, salty Umbrian sausages, perfect not-quite-set, milky mozzarella and some lovely prosciutto San Daniele, as pink as Babe and just as tender. The vitello tonnato - thinly-sliced cold veal criss-crossed with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce made with tuna - was a textbook rendition of a classic and immediately transported me back to another favourite restaurant, Quattro Leoni in Florence, where I last enjoyed this dish.

Although in Italy it would pass as ignorant foreigner behaviour (though in fairness, my behaviour in most countries passes for that too) we both chose pasta as a main rather than intermediate course, pappardelle with venison ragu and chestnuts for Andrew and crab ravioli for me. While my ravioli were delicious, feather-light parcels of sweet white crab meat just moistened with a couple of spoonfuls of buttery broth, I suffered serious plate envy at the sight of Andrew's huge bowl of inch-wide pasta ribbons nestled in a chunky, dark sauce. It tasted as good as it looked; cooked long and slowly, the venison ragu was as intense and robust as my dish was delicate and light, the scattering of chestnuts adding sweetness. A side order of crisp, salty zucchini fritti disappeared as quickly as they must have been fried.

To finish, Andrew ordered the chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream and I the selection of Italian cheese. We were warned that the fondant would take twelve minutes, and exactly that time later our waiter delivered a neatly plated prism of dark, glossy chocolate loveliness and a simple, elegant plate of three cheeses - one blue, one hard, one goat's, all very good - served with pears and honey. The fondant was exactly that, melting, and oozed most satisfyingly as the spoon went in and the filling seeped out, mingling with the bright green ice cream as pleasingly on the eye as on the palate. I couldn't have been happier with my cheeses; the pears-and-honey combination is one I love and was made even better by an accompanying glass of port. 
Drinks-wise, we had also enjoyed a bright, floral 2009 Veridicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, as well as couple of pre-dinner cocktails including a superlative Negroni.

All of this combined - great room, faultless service and fantastic food  - makes for a very happy clientele, and the enjoyment in the place is palpable, manifesting itself in the sort of buzz that new start-ups and faded greats alike - I'm talking about you, The Ivy - can only dream of. Cecconi's feels like its always been there, and on-and-off since 1978 it has, which is forever in restaurant terms. This alchemical ability to make a venue and its customers feel like old friends even when they've only just met is the secret of Cecconi's-owner Soho House Group's global success; it comes as no surprise that Cecconi's now has branches, closely modelled on the original, in West Hollywood and Miami Beach.

None of this comes cheaply; cocktails, three courses, one side, one port and service racked us up a bill of just over £150. Strip away the extras however, and order a cheaper wine (there are seven available for less than the £31 we paid for our Verdicchio) and you could get away with about £45-a-head, less at lunch - or even breakfast, as Cecconi's is open from 7am until very late. Alternatively, the bar - the focal point of the room with its spotless glass panels, high stools and Prosecco on draught - would make a lovely spot for a quick wallet-friendly bite or romantic assignation at any time of day. 
I certainly hope to get back to my new favourite restaurant as soon, and as often, as possible.

Cecconi's, 5a Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3EP Tel: 020 7434 1500 

Cecconi's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Drink, Shop & Do, King's Cross

When a few months ago I was fortunate enough to avoid the swinging axe of redundancy and landed a very nice job at the much larger charity with which the tiny one I was then working for had merged, the only downside was that I had to move office locations from Trendy Shoreditch (TM) with its abundance of ace restaurants and bars to the rather less salubrious environs of King's Cross. I went from one day having within walking distance of the office Rivington, Hoxton Grill, Eyre Brothers and the legendary BLT Deli to having...well, a Pret about five minutes away. Although not usually given to performing oral examinations on gift horses, I was initially rather depressed by the enforced change of culinary scenery.

As an eternal optimist however I never lost faith that, as the old adage goes, with this much crap around there had to be a pony somewhere. Sure enough one day Drink, Shop & Do trotted into my life and the gloom was instantly lifted. On first walking past the dove grey shop-front on Caledonian Road, which stood out from the surrounding kebab and sex shops (by which I mean two separate types of shop, not shops selling both kebabs and sex, though if they exist anywhere it would be around here) with its bold, fresh graphics and canary yellow interior, I thought it was just a cool craft shop because of the window display of textiles and shelves filled with hand-made cards, sewing kits and vintage tea sets. But then I began to wonder what the 'Drink' part of the name could mean, and made the very fortuitous decision to step inside and explore further.

What I discovered was a smart little enterprise that's genuinely new, run with passion and really rather exciting. Passing through the Shop (making a mental note to treat myself to a quarter of something from the jars of classic sweeties lining one wall) I found myself in a bright, buzzing cafe-bar, flooded with natural light from a soaring glass ceiling, its walls decorated with patchwork quilts, framed origami and knitted samplers. These it would transpire are the fruit of the 'Do' part of the name; regular craft workshops are held here covering pastimes as diverse and productive as 'Play with Clay', t-shirt printing and card making. The atmosphere was instantly warm and welcoming; I resolved to come back when I had company.

For my first visit I took along my all-too-occasional lunch companion Scott, and we ordered a piece each of savoury tart  - there's two to choose from every day - with salad, then shared a generous wedge of chocolate tart. The savoury tarts (£5.50) were beautiful, one sweet potato, spinach and feta, the other pea, broccoli and Parmesan, both satisfyingly dense without being heavy and each accompanied by a goodly serving of tasty herb salad in a zesty vinaigrette. The chocolate tart was a cracking pud, its thick ganache filling complemented by pastry almost as sweet and crumbly as shortbread. On a further visit with a work colleague we shared a piece of tart - this time blue cheese and broccoli - and a plateful of cute, crusts-cut-off sandwiches (£4), half cheese and pickle, half smoked salmon and lemon, exactly like my mum used to make for my lunch-box and just as delicious.

With time to kill after work one evening before an event nearby, Drink, Shop & Do was the obvious choice for an early cocktail. From the short, witty list I chose a Ruby Shoes (perfect for a Friend of Dorothy), a generous tumbler-full of a refreshing, potent blend of orange vodka, raspberry liqueur, sour cherry, fresh lime and ginger beer. Then on my most recent visit, with Twitter pals @jezmd and @juliannabarnaby, I enjoyed a Coal Dust - a jet-black gin-based fizz made with coal dust sherbet - before we all tucked into big bowls of a fantastic, salty chorizo and chickpea stew with a couple of bottles of the perfectly decent house Merlot. While some of our fellow patrons embarked on a workshop making accessories out of recycled bicycle tyres - and why not? - we played a boisterous game of Scrabble, one of the dozens of old school board games freely available to all. I'll let you work out which words were mine...

I love Drink, Shop & Do. It's original, inclusive, friendly and great fun. The staff - all spiffing gels in vintage frocks apart from one extremely dishy chap - are all clearly having a hoot-and-a-half and want their customers, of which on every visit there have been deservedly plenty, to do likewise. Some of the prices are a little cheeky - that quarter of sweets, sherbet pips since you're asking, was £1.50 - but generally it's cheap and superlatively cheerful. Everything you see, from the mismatched furniture and vintage china food is served on to the handicrafts on the walls, is for sale, so if you like your teapot, or cake-stand say, you can take it home with you. I haven't found a new opening as refreshing and exciting since Dean Street Townhouse, and as with there I go back as often as I can and am never disappointed.

So impressed have I been, in fact - and please excuse me this shameless plug - that I've featured Drink, Shop & Do in my first column as travel editor for new online fashion magazine Fashion Salade. I very much hope that you'll find it in you to visit both.

Drink, Shop & Do, 9 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX Tel: 020 3343 9138 

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Ivy, Covent Garden

Once upon a time, there was a restaurant so famous and so popular that you could only get a table if you were equally famous and equally popular - or so the fable went. Contrary to popular belief - a belief fuelled by nary a week going by without the Evening Standard running photos of various A-list celebs emerging through the instantly-recognisable square-paned doors - it was always possible to get a table at The Ivy; it was just bloody difficult. 

Sure, a BAFTA or two would see you ensconced behind the harlequin stained glass without the need to navigate the deeply unfriendly automated reservation system, but no restaurant is ever truly unbookable and The Ivy was no exception. Nonetheless, getting a table - or more to the point, telling everyone that you had got a table - was enough to elicit gasps of wonder and disbelief from one's friends and a story one could dine out on for weeks after the dinner itself. 

Then, a few things happened which made getting a table at The Ivy not only rather easier, but also rather less of a big deal. Firstly, Caprice Holdings - a group comprising, at the time, a handful of admittedly good but not hugely well-known restaurants of which The Ivy was indisputably the jewel in the crown - relaunched venerable seafood house Scott's in Mayfair, only to see it eclipse The Ivy in both celebrity attendance and critical recognition. Next, albeit late in the day compared to many restaurants, The Ivy started to accept online bookings, if only for pre- and post-theatre time slots, but given that these are actually rather nice times to eat at this was no bad thing and made the once seemingly-inaccessible accessible. 

Finally, a couple of years ago, Caprice owner Richard Caring decided that the three floors above The Ivy's landmark triangular site were wasted as offices and transformed them into the ultra-exclusive The Club at The Ivy - you can't even look at the website if you're not a member - and invited all his megastar mates and billionaire buddies to join. As a result, any star worth spotting is now not to be found dining on the humble ground floor with you and me, but in one of the two dining rooms on the sealed-off floors above. 

With its core celebrity clientele - and to many, unique selling point - gone elsewhere, The Ivy just doesn't have the same cachet as it had only five or six years ago. And yet when, in a recent conversation with two of my best friends and Alyn about restaurants, the question arose as to where was the one place in London they would most like to eat,  the answer was unanimous: The Ivy, of course. A table was - easily - booked and a couple of Sundays later we passed through those instantly-recognisable doors for lunch.

It didn't start well. Arriving a fashionable few minutes after our assigned 2.45 booking time, we were told - not advised, or apologised to for the fact - that our table was not ready and ordered to wait in the bar. Many's the restaurant that would offer diners in that situation a complimentary drink, but not so The Ivy; here, our enforced pre-prandial round was charged, and how - forty-odd quid for a Buck's Fizz, a Negroni, a G&T and a vodka and Coke. When we were seated - about fifteen minutes late - it was at a table wedged in so closely to those adjacent that our party of four had to split into two twos and approach it from opposite sides. And looking around at our fellow lunchers, the clientèle was - how can I put this? - more likely to grace the pages of
Take A Break than Tatler.

The menu, which some would describe as 'eclectic', is something of a mish-mash, and reads uncomfortably. All the 'new traditional' British classics which The Ivy was once renowned for - fishcakes, shepherd's pie, sticky toffee pudding - remain, the legacy of one-time executive chef Mark Hix, but have been joined by a slew of Oriental specialities at the instigation of current head honcho Gary Lee, ex of Caprice's pan-Asian place Bam-Bou

Starters thus range from steak tartare to hamachi tuna sashimi, and mains from steak and kidney pudding to Thai baked sea bass. It reminded me somewhat of my sister's local pub, where the ambitious, and talented, chef likes to show that he was listening in every module at catering college by serving curries and stir-fries alongside the pie and chips and pints o' prawns. None of this however prevented us from having a thoroughly lovely time, and a very good meal indeed. 

The aforementioned steak tartare and sashimi were both excellent, although I suspect the tartare - my order - was prepared earlier and refrigerated rather than made a la minute. Our other starters, seared foie gras for Alyn and shellfish bisque for Paulie, were much enjoyed; the bisque is one of my favourite starters at also-Caprice-owned Dean Street Townhouse and was just as rich and cognacy here as there. The foie gras was classically presented, with glazed figs and toasted brioche, a simple but supremely luxurious combination and a generously-sized portion - as you'd want it to be for £16.50. 

For main courses we mostly went for roasts, 
it being a Sunday, one rib of beef with all the trimmings, one Moroccan rump of lamb with houmous, harissa and smoked aubergine, and partridge with braised cabbage and smoked bacon. All were fantastic, the partridge (mine) particularly so, although the beef looked a little too rare - and this from a man who had happily eaten raw beef for a starter. Our one non-roast choice, Alyn's steak and kidney pudding, was pronounced excellent by its eater who took a great deal of persuading to part with even a small mouthful for me to try. When I was allowed to sample it I was rewarded with flavours of sweet, light suet and a filling stewed to rich intensity; excellent indeed. 

Although it's usually unheard of for me to share a pudding - share anything, for that matter - I was more than happy to split a baked Alaska for two, 
flambéed table-side in a lovely bit of culinary showmanship. A scattering of Griotte cherries, in the syrup still hot from the pan, provided a bracing aigre-doux contrast to the cold sweetness of the dessert. The sticky toffee pudding, one of The Ivy's signature dishes, lived up to its reputation and was an exceptional rendition of this ubiquitous  sweet. 

We drank a bottle each of a 
warm, full-bodied and blackcurranty 2008 Artazuri Garnacha from Navarra,  and a 2009 'La Flor' Malbec rosé which showed that this grape, always reliable as a red, works just as well as a rosé. Both were priced at about £26, not too terrible but it's worth mentioning that there's not much available under that and the cheapest bottle on the list is £20.75. The pricing overall is rather on the lofty side, and even taking into consideration the drinks before lunch and a round of stickies after, I was still shocked when our final bill came in at just shy of £80 a head. A £2 cover charge struck me as greedy, 'covering' as it does only good-but-nothing-special bread. Service throughout - bar our initial shunting to the bar - was warm, polite and polished, although it aggrieved me that the policy of no mobile phones stated on the menu was not being enforced.

The experience as a whole was a very good one; a super meal with nice wine in a room which I'd go so far as to say is perhaps my favourite in London with its colourful windows and bold modern art. It's certainly easy to see how The Ivy has stayed in business in its current incarnation for twenty years and why people - famous or not - like it so much. But it's over-priced and thinks too much of itself in a time when there are better, cheaper and even more popular restaurants all over London. 

Famous places, trading on past glories and charging too much because they can, are known as tourist attractions. The Ivy is better than that, but needs to be careful that it doesn't end up being famous only for being famous. 

The Ivy, 1 West Street, London WC2H 9NQ Tel: (020) 7836 4751

The Ivy on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Hibiscus, Mayfair

London Restaurant Festival, which concludes on Monday, has been like Christmas to the food-obsessed among us. In only its second year, the LRF has grown from a week-long affair in 2009 to a full-on fortnight in 2010, with hundreds of restaurants offering special menus, American Express sponsorship and a packed programme of high-profile gala events. Of these, the most filling was the insanely abundant launch breakfast at Roast - I really did expect John Cleese to emerge and offer "just weurn waffer theen meent" - and the most fun was the Big Quiz, held over the course of a delicious three-course feast at Le Cafe Anglais and hosted by none other than Anne Robinson - as you can see, we bonded over our shared hair colour.

The most cerebral however was the Big Debate. Held at King's Place and chaired by the debonair human rights lawyer Jason McCue, it pitched Rosie Boycott and Janet Street-Porter against Jonathan Meades and A.A. Gill to debate the motion 'This house believes that French cuisine is a spent force'. So, nothing controversial there then. Warned by McCue not to be lured down the lazy path of Francophobia, the ladies' team, speaking for the motion, bemoaned the demise of French agriculture and the increasing prevalence of the motorway service station, while also praising the ever-improving quality of food and cooking in Britain (a moment of comedy came when JSP, giving a roll call of British chefs, invoked the name of Richard Corrigan only for the man himself to precise from the audience "I'm Irish!")

The gentlemen meanwhile spoke glowingly of the innumerable fine restaurants, shops and manufacturers throughout l'Hexagone (Meades) and of the Proustian memorability of the first taste of a real French croissant, butter and confiture (Gill, whose participation in a debate about a spent force struck me as ironic). 
Points were awarded or deducted by questioners from the audience as well as McCue and the motion was eventually defeated, albeit by only the narrowest of margins.

Anyone who believes that French cuisine - cuisine in its literal sense of cooking - really is a spent force can not have had the lunch that I had at Hibiscus last Sunday. Chef-patron Claude Bosi's two Michelin-starred restaurant on Maddox Street is renowned as being one of the country's, not just the capital's best so you would expect the experience to be pretty stellar, but add to this the fact that Bosi's co-chef for the day  - under the LRF's American Express-backed 10-10-10 initiative - was none other than Alain Roux, he of the three-star Waterside Inn in Bray, and you can begin to imagine just how spectacular the meal was.

We  - being myself, Alyn and our gorgeous NBFF Chloe - began with an amuse bouche of Hibiscus soda topped with black pepper-infused citrus foam, which was lively, bracing and tart, perfect for prepping our taste-buds for the seven courses to follow (although the Pol Roger we were sipping at this point was also doing a pretty good job.)

First we enjoyed Roux's terrine of pressed foie gras and supreme of guinea fowl with truffle and young red chard leaves. This was flawlessly executed, the dense supreme in the middle of the velvety terrine creating a beautiful complementary texture, although the most exciting part of the dish was the teeny tiny pickled mushrooms - I'm afraid I've no idea what variety - which dotted the plate. Next up was pan-fried lobster medallion - the claw also making a welcome appearance - with white port sauce and ginger-flavoured vegetable julienne. This was how I like my men to be, simple, elegant and rich, and there's nothing that's not improved by a bit of ginger, as Anne Robinson might say.

Claude Bosi took over for the next two courses and this was reflected in the solidly British ingredients, cooked to classically French techniques. First was roast hand-dived scallops [sic - each portion was a singular, though huge, scallop], pork pie sauce, pink grapefruit and wood sorrel. Each scallop was crusted with a mix of herbs and apple, which brought depth to the otherwise light dish. The pork pie sauce - which really did taste like that most perfect of snacks and which I would dearly like a large bottle of to splash over everything - was a witty addition, although we all agreed that the pink grapefruit, served as a teaspoonful of thick syrup, was just too sharp and overwhelmed the sweetness of the plump scallop.

The next, nominally main, course however was just about perfect; Shropshire mallard, a nice nod to Hibiscus's original Ludlow location, poached in grape juice and served with sweet potato and saffron. In my enthusiastic amateur's opinion, this was about as good as food gets: the tenderest meat, well-judged accompaniments (the sauce included a handful of lovely poached grapes; the potatoes were whipped into a smooth, saffron-scented purée), elegantly plated and served in just the right quantities. Then followed a pre-dessert - what used to be known as a 'palate cleanser' - of apple salad, sweet celeriac and chestnut cream, which tasted rather like stewed apple baby food, or Colman's apple sauce, but looked pretty and straddled the savoury/sweet axis most efficiently.

Each chef had created a dessert, one the epitome of traditional French cuisine  -Alain Roux's textbook pistachio crème brul
ée - the other boldly contemporary, being Claude Bosi's cep tart with macadamia nut ice cream. Yes, cep as in mushrooms; Bosi had conceived a tart of very sweet short crust pastry with a sweetened, but unmistakeably, earthily savoury filling, the ice cream adding salt and smoke. When I told smarty-pants James Ramsden this the next day he looked at me as a resigned parent would at their idiot child and said "It's called umami dear" - but I'm sure you all knew that anyway. As a table we unanimously loved the crème brulébut couldn't reach a consensus on the tart; I for one thought it was fantastic, as were the hand-made chocolates which accompanied the delicious, tar-thick rocket fuel coffee.

I've focused firmly on the food thus far - and to be fair, how could I not - but other brilliant bits deserve a mention. Right at the start, even before the gorgeous baked in-house sourdough bread and unsalted French butter were brought to the table, we'd been treated to a basket of Bosi's signature piping-hot gouj
ères - addictive Parmesan and Cheddar-cheese filled puffs resembling incredibly posh dough balls. The wines chosen for us to accompany the menu were exceptional: a crisp, light, treacle-yellow 2002 Ribolla, Gravner from Italy; a big, complex, more-fruit-than-Carmen-Miranda's-hat Vinsobres Cote de Rhone Villages, and with our brace of desserts an unusual Ice Cider from Quebec, a North American version of cider brandy but with a deeper sweetness and extraordinary length.

Service was absolutely impeccable; the wines were presented to us by easily the most enthusiastic and engaging sommelier I'd ever encountered, and our food brought and introduced by an equally committed and lovely (not to mention preposterously handsome) waiter who expertly tempered respect for formality with judicious humour and panache. My particular favourite touch - whether practised or not I couldn't tell but I loved it anyway - was both the waiter's and sommelier's habit of making suggestions rhetorically; "Shall I arrange a drop more of that for you?" in response to an empty glass, or "Would you be feeling ready for your desserts now?" which have the effect of making one feel terribly clever for simply saying "Yes". It's a highly enjoyable form of cosseting which I could get dangerously used to.

Alas I'm unable to tell you what this three hour Bacchanal cost, not because it was free as I know some readers might be thinking from all the references to American Express (from whom I have not received so much as an additional membership reward point) but because it was extremely kindly and generously paid for by our lady host and it would have been rude to ask. What I can tell you, as a guide, is that three courses a la carte at Hibiscus is usually £75, with offers at lunchtime and a tasting menu at £80 for six courses. This makes it rather more affordable than the Waterside Inn, whose prices left me breathless when I researched them.

Hyperbole is an occupational hazard in food writing - I remember how I used to flinch when, in every one of her mercifully now discontinued reviews, one free-sheet critic would refer to her having been 'in raptures' at one dish or another - so it's with careful aforethought and the space of a week's reflection that I can say that this was one of the best meals I have ever had. Hibiscus shows that French cuisine is no more a spent force than t
he vibrant, vital culinary scene which London Restaurant Festival champions and which right now is one of the most, perhaps the most, exciting in the world. And that's not open to debate.

Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, London W1S 2PA Tel: 020 7629 2999   

Hibiscus on Urbanspoon

Monday, 27 September 2010

Koffmann's, Knightsbridge

For those of us afflicted by the increasingly-common condition known as Restaurant Obsessive Disorder - symptoms of which include poring over online menus late at night, booking tables at new restaurants the minute phonelines open, and cataloguing everything we eat in words and even pictures assuming it to be of interest to others - the comings, goings and coming again of famous chefs at The Berkeley have been as fascinating as the peregrinations of the yellow warbler are to ornithologists.

Twelve years ago, Pierre Koffmann moved his three-Michelin starred restaurant La Tante Claire from its site at 68 Royal Hospital Road to The Berkeley, an early example of a top chef being lured to a top hotel. The Chelsea site vacated by La Tante Claire was taken on by the then relatively-unknown Gordon Ramsay, who three years later had three stars of his own. 
When Koffmann entered semi-retirement in 2003 (semi- in that he kept on a consultancy gig) and closed La Tante Claire, the by now very well-known Ramsay was taken on by The Berkeley's owners, Maybourne, to oversee all their restaurants. His two-starred, Marcus Wareing-helmed Pétrus replaced La Tante Claire, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's fusion temple Vong was booted out to make way for Gordon's smart-casual Boxwood Cafe.

Fast forward to 2010, and following very public fallings out between Ramsay and Maybourne (which only Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's survived), and between Wareing and Ramsay, a practically unchanged P
étrus is now Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and the Boxwood Cafe site - empty since April 2010 - has been taken on by...none other than an un-retired Pierre Koffmann. Plus ca change, as M. Koffmann might say. I tell you all this by way of bringing home the point - to non-ROD sufferers - that in London restaurant terms, Koffmann's is A Very Big Deal Indeed. It's for this reason that I chose to go there for Sunday lunch with my friend Nina, who on her occasional visits from Bermuda entrusts to me the choosing of somewhere fabulous for a long, boozy catch-up meal. To my great relief and pleasure, Nina's trust was repaid by Koffmann's being every bit as good as I had expected it to be.

In keeping with the reputation of The Berkeley itself, everything about the restaurant is discreetly luxurious, all pale surfaces and gentle lighting, with cheerful flashes of colour provided by green-upholstered chairs and some wonderful floral arrangements. It's smart rather than formal; Nina and I were in our Sunday best but other diners were in jeans and didn't look out of place. The size of the tiered room - there are two dining rooms separated by a very chic bar area on the landing between - would allow for more tables than there are; the resulting generous spacing adds to the air of relaxed elegance.

The Sunday lunch menu, offering three choices for each of three courses, is exceptional value at just £26, round about the price of a main course on the a la carte (the cuisine may be 'the simple, of the countryside' but the prices are very much of the city). To kick off, Nina chose chicken liver parfait which was excellent, a hint of anise lifting it above the ordinary although its being served in a teeny-tiny Kilner jar seemed a little gastropub. My salad of hearts of palm with shrimps was much more in keeping with the surroundings; well-presented, colourful and classy. The crunchy shredded hearts were dressed in a lovely mustard/citrus emulsion full of flavour but not so much as to overwhelm the fat, sweet shrimps on top.

We both chose the same main course, braised shoulder of lamb with white bean cassoulet, and there could be no better example of the 'hearty, robust seasonal food' which it is Pierre Koffmann's stated intent to provide. The lamb was soft and rich, shaped into a neat cylinder and served on a bed of the hearty but not heavy stew. We were pleasantly surprised to be served a trio of complimentary side dishes (quite why they were complimentary I wasn't sure, but let's just say Nina is a very attractive woman) of honeyed carrots, green beans and  - a little oddly given our menu choices - French fries. All were good, although I thought the little metal pail the chips were served in was naff rather than nice.

We shared a flawless dessert of caramelised oeufs a la neige - more commonly known as ile flottante or floating island - a featherlight cloud of meringue atop a sweetened custard. Having spied, and smelled, the cheese trolley from across the room we shared a selection of the magnificently kept cheeses from La Fromagerie, two cow's and two goat's milk of which our favourites were the smooth, strong Fougeru and a salty Persille du Marais. A bottle of Corbieres Classique, Chateau Ollieux Romanis 2008 at £28 saw us through the meal, light enough to complement the starters yet robust enough to match well with the richness of the lamb and cheese dishes.

Service was generally as excellent as it should be in an establishment of this pedigree, but a couple of inadequacies stuck out. The waiter who took our food order would not take our wine order, but the sommelier sent to do so did no more than write down the name of the wine I had to point to on the list
The amuses-bouche we were presented with was no more than an anchovy fillet wrapped around a black olive on a disc of near-stale bread and the petits fours served with coffee, miniature chocolate macarons, were fridge-cold and chewy. These little freebies are lovely if they add something to the meal but if the desire isn't there to provide good ones, I'd rather have none at all.

These though really are minor gripes and don't in any way affect my opinion that this is a restaurant worth obsessing over. The food is superb, the atmosphere comforting and the service respectful but warm. It's not horrendously expensive either; our beautiful lunch, a good bottle of wine, a port, coffees and service came to £56 each.

The next time Pierre Koffmann retires it may be for good. ROD-sufferer or not, I'd recommend getting yourself to The Berkeley and catching him while you can.

Koffmann's, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL Tel: 020 7235 1010
Koffmann's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Emporio Armani Caffe, Knightsbridge

Emporio Armani in Knightsbridge is, to paraphrase the famous 80s advertising slogan for its near neighbour the V&A, an ace caff with quite a nice boutique attached. Located in the quiet mid-section of the Brompton Road, past the scrums around Harrods but not as far West as chi-chi Brompton Cross, the grand UK flagship of Giorgio Armani's younger, edgier label attracts a fashionable mix of well-heeled, well-dressed locals and wealthy foreign visitors. Thanks to the chic first floor Caffe, should hunger strike after a shopping spree or they require sustenance before one, they need not set foot outside the exquisitely polished door.

Readers of my recent write-up of Racine may recall that my best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world Andrew works at Emporio Armani and it was at his suggestion that we booked ourselves in for lunch last week. Although aware of it, I'd never eaten at the Caffe (only the original, at Armani's Milan megastore) and might never have done had Andrew not heard good things which found their way to my ears. It had to be lunch - the Caffe is only open during normal store hours - and a day off work presented an ideal opportunity.

As you'd expect from the master of sleek, pared-down luxury, the design of Mr Armani's cafe is in perfect keeping with the philosophy of the label.  The decor of the long room - it runs the full width of the front of the store - combines high-gloss black marble, vast mirrors reflecting the natural light which pours in through an immense picture window, elegant beige seating and accents of Armani's favourite lipstick red. Like the clothes themselves, it's entirely classic while at the same time resolutely modern.

The menu reads as it should in a high-end Italian brasserie; there's a good range of antipasti and pasta, salads in starter and main course sizes and various fish and grills, as well as desserts and a lengthy drinks list for those fancying just a sugar or liquor high before dropping £600 on a blazer. As befits the demographic of the area - broadly, high-net-worth ladies who lunch and the men who walk them around town - the cooking style of chef-manager Djamel Benchikh is light and health-conscious without stripping away all signs of fun and indulgence, so while the majority of dishes are steamed, grilled and low-carb there's still some frittura going on.

Andrew started with calamari fritti while I ordered Parma ham with figs. The calamari were excellent, oil-less, crisp batter yielding to chewable rather than chewy squid. A slightly spicy, rich tomato dip served with it added colour and punch. My prosciutto - served in a portion large enough to serve as a light main course - was wonderful, a gorgeous mound of silky, salty ham and super-ripe figs complemented nicely by chunks of Galia melon and shavings of Parmesan. 

Main courses were equally simple and just as good; Andrew's test of any Italian restaurant (he and I have eaten our way around Tuscany) is their pasta e pomodoro and Armani's passed with flying colours, the thick, chunky tomato sauce having been slow-cooked to bring out an intensity of flavour not common in such a simple dish. My fillet of sea bass, adeptly seasoned, grilled to just-golden and presented on a soothing bed of palourde clams and broad beans was completely brilliant, the best fish dish I've had this year by a nautical mile.

Throughout the meal, warm tomato foccacia and olive bread, delicious on their own and even better dipped in the wonderful olive oil and balsamic provided, were regularly replenished. A couple of glasses of a crisp, floral Gavi di Gavi were the ideal accompaniment to the light but distinctive flavours of the food and tap water was happily brought and topped up (I mention this as reassurance to anyone who, nervous of asking the prices in a designer boutique, might be afraid to ask for anything less than Acqua Panna in a designer cafe). Service, from a brace of model-pretty staff, was as smart as the Armani suits they were wearing.

A couple of minor details, though far from criticisms, are worth noting. One is the aforementioned opening hours, or rather lack of them; the Caffe is only open when the store is open, currently 10-6 or at the latest 7. This is a shame, as I could see this being a really smart dinner destination if only the architects had thought to include a separate entrance. The other is that, unsurprisingly I suppose, the food is almost as expensive as the clothes; our two-course lunch with two glasses of wine, a Coke and 12.5% service came to £73. But like the collections for sale in the store around us, the price was borne out by superlative quality, expert manufacture and high style. 

Both this ace caff(e), and the rather nice boutique attached to it, are well worth a visit.

Emporio Armani Caffe, 191 Brompton Road, London SW3 1NE Tel: 020 7584 4549 

Emporio Armani Express on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 6 September 2010

Cafe Luc, Marylebone

This restaurant is now closed.

If I gave my blog posts headlines rather than simple titles, you can be sure that they would be dreadful punning ones. Bar Boulud? 'Not worth the hulla-Boulud'; Drapers Arms? 'Cut from some very fine cloth', that sort of thing. I say this only because while struggling to think where to begin with appraising an eminently forgettable dinner at Marylebone newbie Cafe Luc, I came up with several groan-out-loud possibilities: 'A Luclustre Performance'; 'Luc warm at best';  'Luc who's coming for dinner' - you get the picture. And speaking of pictures, you know it's come to something when I break my cardinal rule of not photographing food to snap my smiley-faced gazpacho, just to be sure of having something of interest to share.

This isn't to say I was left feeling entirely luctiferous by Cafe Luc, which occupies a huge site at the northern end of fashionable Marylebone High Street. Much of the experience was very agreeable, not least the company of the devilishly-handsome up-and-coming fashion television producer James Tomlinson who, you heard it here first, will very soon be telling us all what not to wear and how to look good clothed. The cocktails we kicked off the evening with - a vodka Martini and a Sea Breeze - were excellent, although there's no list so you just have to know what you want and hope that they know how to make it. And it's a not unattractive if rather corporate-feeling room, with lucent clusters of lamps spaced along biscuity-beige walls and plenty of mirrors for admiring one's fellow diners (and oneself) in. It's just those rather important elements of food and service that let the place down.

On its website, Cafe Luc boasts that "the classic brasserie menu references French and Mediterranean dishes, drawing on seasonal and local produce." So far so appetising, except that the menu 
doesn't actually make any references to seasonality or provenance, other than for a dish of Cornish mackerel on the prix-fixe which combines both (if by 'local' they mean 'regional' which I rather fancy to be the case). Sure, the smiley gazpacho was made with tomatoes, which are very much in season at the time of writing, but as a showcase of August's abundant lycopene-rich lovelies it wasn't exactly up there with, say, the beautiful, rainbow-hued salad of Heritage toms I enjoyed on my most recent visit to Dean Street Townhouse.

James and I ordered from the prix-fixe, good value at £15.50 and even better value at the £1 it was costing me thanks to an opening online offer. Good value, yes, but also depressingly pedestrian. As well as the gazpacho, which was garlicky, oily and not at all bad, starter choices were smoked salmon (described by both the menu and James as 'fine') served eccentrically on a toasted crumpet, and a duck terrine. Mains included pea risotto, the aforementioned Cornish mackerel and steak frites. We both ordered the latter; it was all right. Our desserts, lemon tart with raspberries and Chantilly and Nutella cr
ème brulée, were good although the latter tasted more of chocolate than of the promised hazelnut and thus disappointed. I'm honestly not sure if we'd have fared any better ordering a la carte; while it's perfectly possible to szhuszh up a 'classic brasserie menu' (step forward Automat) I don't think that's happening in the kitchen at Cafe Luc based on what we were served.

Ah yes - the service. Like the food, it wasn't actively bad, and I would probably have been more sympathetic had what we were eating been really stellar, but the so what-ness of the meal only served to accentuate the 'So what?' attitude of the people serving it. Excepting the warm welcome at the reception desk, staff were for the most part aloof, absent and seemingly uninterested in making our experience a memorable one. Worst of all, they committed the to-me impardonable table-side sin of serving James's main course to his empty place while he was away from the table. Given that other tables seemed to be receiving rather more attention, I can only conclude that because one of us was only paying a pound, we were deemed worthy of only 12.5 pence worth of service.

Somewhat depressingly, I expect that despite the blandness of all it has to offer Cafe Luc will thrive; while over-priced for what it is, perversely it's pretty cheap for Marylebone and in its very ordinariness could service a need for 'plain' food in an enclave which boasts plenty for the gourmand - The Providores, L'Autre Pied and Orrery are all nearby - but little for the casual diner. Whatever your culinary preference, I can only suggest that you Luc elsewhere.

Cafe Luc, 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5HN Tel: 020 7258 9878

Cafe Luc on Urbanspoon
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