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 pissaladière 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 sommelière 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 http://www.cassisbistro.co.uk