28 Nov 2008

Zinc and Pewter

JUST TRYING to keep it authentic” explained the barman in a thick, Gallic accent. He had just shouted - quite theatrically - to a colleague at the other end of the 15 metre, pewter bar. “Not a problem,” I replied, using the bona fide burr of an English ponce. I was actually rather enjoying waiting for my friend, Will, who had inadvertently gone to Smithfields rather than Spitalfields. Along with the imported atmosphere, I soaked up a flute of pink Champagne and halved blanched Spanish almonds with my teeth. Knowing he was sweating in a black cab, thirst building, I phoned a couple of times to relay details of the quenching tipple: cool temperature, cossetting texture and delicate scents of raspberry and pastry.
Most Brits associate the ‘brasserie’ concept with 'Café Rouge' and its ilk, even though our equivalent is really the gastropub. It does look like former broker Ian Stoppani and Michel Roux Junior have taken great care to replicate the brassy features of the romanticised, all-day French version, London’s second such opening in recent months (the other being ‘St. Pancras Grand’). There is a dramatic checkerpot floor, maroon carriage style Chesterfields, engraved mirrors and varnished veneers. Closer inspection revealed an absinthe fountain to louchely summon the green fairy. Occasionally, Edith Piaf joined the fray, gutturally shoe-horned between acid jazz. And whenever she appeared, a roar of support rose…
A substantial staff, neat as a new pin in black and white, seemed smilingly to enter into the Euro-Disney atmosphere. The whole place smelt of lilies and new leather.
The hearty, A3 sized menu read like a greatest hits of the genre. Will and I asked if we could order half portions of plenty of plates although somewhere we lost control: the choice was taken from our hands and things just began to appear. Exuberant, tangy, white butter pleasantly overpowered reasonable sliced baguette, but slightly stale brown. Bélon oysters were verdigris tinged: tannic, dry, zinc drenched. Restaurant manager, Frederic who must have spent at least a third of our six-hour lunch answering questions and recommending Parisian bistros, admitted craving the creamy fatness of Breton oysters when they are spawning. The sensual and contagious allure of sexy oysters! We excavated a dozen Burgundian snails with gynecological looking tools. They were quite big: moistly bound in garlic butter, earthy and pert. Frogs legs were cleanly fried with an accurate Tartare Sauce. A Bibendum like stack of onion tyres were topped with brittle fried parsley. A bottle of nervy, razor-sharp, chalky Chablis 1er Cru ’04 (Raveneau) brought with us, cut through with style. Grilled fillet of moist gurnard (an underrated ‘bottom feeder’) was greaseless, served with a tender squid tendril, juicy razor clam and a firm base of ratatouille. Love it or hate it, ‘La Marmite Bretonne’ – mixed fish in a lobster bouillon – came sweltering in a little pot. It required a little extra seasoning, which we applied, but was genuinely well executed with cobalt coloured mussels, fleshy langoustines and a meaty lobster claw (which we fought over). A pure tasting, iconic Gevrey-Chambertin, Lavaux-St-Jacques ’99 (Dom. Louis Jadot) was aquiline with a delicate, yielding perfume of raspberry, soft sorrel and dark spices. It was agile enough to go fishing with the Marmite whilst retaining its own veracity. To follow, the textures of the tagliatelle nest of pink-centred pan-fried veal kidneys in tarragon sauce were complimentary, although there was too much pasta for my taste.
Roasted corn-fed chicken breast with a apple sweet Breton cider sauce, glazed apple and wilted gem lettuce was very good. The bird had a succulent texture approaching specimens from Bresse.
A bottle of densely perfumed Margaux from the millennium, Château Giscours, was ripe: almost vaporously alcoholic, with a little toffee, heather and concentrated blackcurrant cordial notes. Rousing and refreshing. The so-titled ‘farandole’ (or dance) of fromages was pristine: a work of love and one of the most-well appointed carts I have seen in London. The highlight was the triple cream brie swollen with black winter truffles and named in honour of 18th century gastro-God, ‘Brillat-Savarin’. A little sweet, ‘bread in a box’ acted as spatula.
Two halves (one just seemed mean) of Château Filhot Sauternes ’03 (drawn from the restaurant’s list) provided an energetic, opulent, fleshy and creamy palate cleanser: quince laden and sprucing. Incidentally, this estate was once considered on par with the world’s most famous stickie, Château d’Yquem. Having a shocking fondness for sugar, I finished with a plate of profiteroles doused in glossy chocolate, topped with a little mint. Will describes himself as a ‘pastry man’ – which has nothing to do with his sexuality - and would have preferred a stronger ratio of springy choux to vanilla pod infused ice cream. I thought they were wildly hedonistic, however, as was our decadent lunch (which had segued into supper). By the time we left reservations signs were sprouting on surrounding tables, ready for the evening service.
Word on the street suggests that the city finds Le Bouchon Breton boldly priced. It goes without saying that their estimations would have been poles apart a few months ago. But the truth is that with the prix fixe, you could come out of the experience spending mercifully little. Service was generously attentive; cooking was ultimately correct and inevitably never cutting edge. The room was neat rather than chic, although incongruous. Gaping windows stared relentlessly onto the stark, modernised market, where dystopic chains like ‘Las Iguanas’ and ‘Giraffe’ hold court.
There are well-publicised links with ‘Le Gavroche’. Apart from Roux, ex Gavroche sommelier Francois Bertrand has caringly compiled a 700 bin strong homage to brighter days. The top ‘artefacts’ are displayed within a temperature controlled glass wall. Ex Gavroche chef Nicolas Laridan, who I am told described us as that day’s ‘big eaters’ is at the helm. Despite its makers, this is however very much its own creature. And I cannot help but speculate how a 200+ cover site with standards will avoid becoming an unwieldy monster in a bear market.
‘To be successful in my native France, where people speak the same language and understand me, is nothing…’
[Edith Piaf]
'Le Bouchon Breton' - 1st Floor, 8 Horner Square, Spitalfields, London. E16 EWT. T. 08000 191 704
Le Bouchon Breton is the ‘big sister’ to Le Bouchon Bordelais, Clapham.
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