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
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...