It's rather poetic then that in its new incarnation as Brasserie Zédel, what was once London's most exclusive venue is now among its most democratic, offering all-day dining at extremely accessible prices to a staggering 240 covers at a time. Reservations are taken (fancy!) but a substantial proportion of tables are kept for walk-ins meaning that, unlike Atlantic, any and everyone is able to get in.
And get in they must if Rex Restaurant Associates, the Chris Corbin and Jeremy King-helmed investment vehicle behind Zédel is to make back the fortune that must have been spent on the decor, one of London's most jaw-dropping rooms by a country mile. Shayne Brady, the impishly-handsome head designer at David Collins Studio has turned what was a dark and imposing subterranean space into a light, even dazzling room with acres of pink-hued marble, brass railings and real gold leaf on the capitals atop the room's mighty columns.
As for the pricing, much has been made of how cheap many dishes on Brasserie Zédel's all-French menu are - not least the soupe du jour at a no-it-can't-be £2.25 - but it's not necessarily a cheap restaurant; on my most recent visit, one of several since it opened, four of us clocked up a bill of about £40 a head once a couple of decent bottles of wine had been added to the mix. Rather, it is one offering value for money almost unheard of not just in London's West End but just about anywhere.
Starters start with that soup and peak at £7.75; particularly brilliant are the crème Dubarry - a thick cream of cauliflower soup - and the soupe de poissons at £4.75, almost as good as The Ivy's at two-thirds of the price. Salads, too, impress, particularly endive and roquefort which happily marries the bitterness of chicory to the saltiness of blue cheese.
Of the main courses, even the simplest steak haché - £7.50 on its own or available as part of the £8.75 for two courses or £11.25 for three prix-fixe - is noteworthy, using good beef and enlivened by a perky sauce au poivre. The vast choucroute Alsacienne, £11.75 and a meal in itself, is as delicious a mountain of pickled cabbage and pork as you'll ever find.
Desserts continue the theme of being far better than one would expect for the price. I simply can't fault the ile flottante - £2.75! - and even the café gourmand with the prix-fixe is a generous serve, three mini pastries with a cafetiere of decent filter coffee. There's also all manner of ice-cream coupes, sorbets, tarts and cakes, all for under a fiver.
In a restaurant of this size, serving this many people, choreographing service is bound to be a challenge and to date my only real gripes with Brasserie Zédel have been around this. Firstly, wherever the kitchen is in this behemoth of a building, it is clearly too far from the dining room to ensure that food arrives piping hot; nothing I have eaten has been much hotter than tepid although it's tasted none the worse for that.
Also, in the time it takes for plates to arrive at the tables, sauces can congeal; a quick whisk with a fork at the service station before presentation would help no end. Worst of all, on my most recent visit our main courses arrived before we had even finished our starters and rather than being taken away, they were served while one of our party raced under pressure to finish her soup, which is a serious no-no in my book. So it's not perfect, but it's still early days for Brasserie Zédel and with luck and a little more time these glitches should iron out.
As I write, reservations have just opened for Corbin & King's next project, Cafe Colbert on Sloane Square; with its SW1 location and aristocratic landlord it is unlikely that it will be as democratic as Brasserie Zédel. No matter; for here is a restaurant that in both pricing and geography is truly accessible to anyone - and not a velvet rope in sight.
Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED Tel: 020 7734 4888 http://www.brasseriezedel.com
Posted by +Hugh Wright