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 http://www.cigalon.co.uk/