Friday, March 28, 2008

Let there be light!

Le Café Anglais is indeed an enigma! It looks like you are sat in the dining room in a provincial seaside hotel called ‘The insert town name here Grand’, there’s smoky (some say botchy) mirrors and art deco style lighting, sweeping banquettes with the huge windows overlooking the garish streets of Queensway. And we were led to believe the irascible Rowley Leigh would be presiding over the pass but we got him on a well deserved night off. For this is indeed the much anticipated new venture of Rowley Leigh of Kensington Place fame and the occasional appearance with Alistair Little in their odd-couple style flat on Nigel Slater’s Real Food show from way back when. I think the central London flat was probably due to the handiness of their restaurants and in the parlance of facebook “it’s complicated” relationships at home. But it made intriguing viewing!

I met Rowley at one of Jeremy Lee’s cookbook events last year (or possibly even the year before) and he mentioned his plan to open a large French restaurant in the Whitley’s shopping centre and being thwarted due to their popularity when we tried to visit in December D and I finally found ourselves here. So not so new now, but definitely worth the wait!

As some may know, I am a huge fan of Giles Coren’s restaurant column in the Saturday Times, especially now he has eased off on the weekly “how wonderful is my girlfriend, Rachel” comments and he has been on an intrepid campaign to banish high-faluting imported bottled waters onto our dining tables in favour of good old honest straight-from-the-tap water. Now to be honest I am a huge fan of Evian, but am really trying to wean myself off it in favour of cold filtered tap water – honestly D I am – though granted not so successfully yet. Though I am very partial to Belu and I do so love its green credentials bit unfortunately Ocado don’t seem to stock it yet, but this would really assist me in departing the dark side if they did. And to make me feel ever so slightly less guilty – at least I live in a borough that collects and recycles plastic bottles but I do concede that tap water would be even better. But Giles has now realised his good work is done; everyone is campaigning for tap water. We are all officially social pariahs for even considering bottled water so he feels he can move onto a new campaign – smiling!

And many congratulations to Mark Hix and his revamp of Brown's Hotel dining experience being a worthy recipient of Giles’ first points awarded for the restaurant staff's ability to smile. And it goes without saying - the most excellent food is lauded also! I'm eagerly awaiting the opening of Mark Hix's Chophouse and Oyster Bar in Spitalfields in a few weeks, it's bound to be a winner with Mark's reputation and seeing him conjure up his Chophouse butter on Market Kitchen made me even more determined to visit there as soon as I can. Actually talking of tap water and many restaurants polishing their green halos, Mark has planned a nice quirky take on it - his new chophouse menu will have Clerkenwell Spring Water for £0 in the drink section.

So Giles has done tap water, every other reviewer is now also doing tap water, Giles has moved onto smiling and I'm going to launch my campaign for light in restaurants maybe even awarding light bulbs to those who get it right! Okay maybe this is egocentric of me, I do so love being able to capture a foodie moment when I'm dining out but I also know M rather craves a little illumination to be thrown over the situation and this fashionable gloom that has descended on many restaurants now is really beginning to grate. I don’t want to go the curious route of some odd French cafés I've stumbled across in little villages, all unforgiving fluorescent lights and dusty scarily gaudy plastic flowers. No this is way too far in the other direction but what is wrong with you clearly being to read the menu, admire the artistry of your plate and if so desired take a cheeky flash-less photograph if you wish to adorn your food blog thus? And Le Café Anglais has got it just right, the décor may look ever so retro but directly above me and maybe not so much above D was a discrete spotlight. Wow, I could really see and I didn't have to resort to Photoshop to extract the merest amount of light from a picture I'd taken. At last! And the photos look so much better for it; the colours are so much more vibrant and don’t have that nasty seventies Family Circle magazine brown tinge to them. What a difference a few watts make!

And I think I get the name – the look is distinctly English, playing with the grand 1911 building structure and the afternoon tea in the provinces look with the conspicuously French bistro style food. And the rumours about Le Café Anglais are true – the effect is sublime. Frankly they had D at the radishes! As soon as we were seated on the arc of the curving banquettes a menu a dish of radishes materialised. And of course bread and good French butter. I was instantly transported back to May 2003, it is D’s birthday and we are drinking pink champagne and eating radishes and “crazy salt” in the Nicky and Regis’ garden outside their wonderful Normandy manor house Le Manoir de L'Aufragere near Fourmetot. It is completely idyllic and radishes just send me straight back to that moment in time with our fabulous hosts, Josephine the donkey, Catso and all those little dwarf chickens feasting on our crushed oyster shells. Actually that holiday was my first inspiration for writing a food diary, I painstakingly detailed all the stupendous meals we feasted upon – the duck Carpaccio that N moodily declined, the bunny and the rhubarb that so distressed the big lorry fanatic from Nelson via Eindhoven, the neatly dispatched trout and endless long evenings of laughter and Limoncello. My mistake however was not to stick to the tried and tested leather bound journal and pen option but to write it all out on my trusty Palm Pilot. Unfortunately my Palm perhaps engorged on all that fabulousness just shut itself down mysteriously on the last day thus wiping the memory and all my jottings. Clearly this devastated me and I didn’t return to the concept of diarising my most excellent foodie times until nearly three years later!

But back to the present day, we have a rather exciting menu to pore over. The only definite so far is the Parmesan Custard; I heard great things about it last night at Divertimenti and a few reviews I’ve read (including Giles') refer to its wonderfulness. But what else? Fortunately D and I are very good at sharing so we can make our own tasting menu; with the options we pick ourselves and others to go halves on.

We start with a Champagne Cocktail for D, a good old Kir(a) Imperial for me and chase this with hor d’ouevres of Sweetbreads with Salsa Verde and Parmesan Custard and Anchovy Toast respectively with a plate of Salsify Fritters to share.

Everything is just so fabulous; the Parmesan Custard is unctuous with the piquant anchovy toasts to dip into its silky interior, just stunning! D seems delighted with her sweetbreads and salsify is always a good thing.

Next we have first courses – they were just tasters believe it or not! I choose the Foie Gras Terrine with PX Jelly and D the Carrot and Sorrel Risotto. Half way through we swap our plates so we can both experience the velvety delicious foie gras and frankly another excellent risotto with that little lemony hit.

Rowley, with your fine food you are spoiling us!

And then it’s the turn of the main course, we both plump for Skirt Steak with Shallots with Pommes Annas for D and the inevitable Gratin Dauphinois for me and to add a little green to our plates Lettuce Hearts with French Dressing. A perfect plate of bistro fare, with tasty potato accompaniments and the well dressed salad was the crowning glory.

It’s hard to believe that we could squeeze in a dessert but from somewhere D found the space for Champagne Jelly with Rhubarb and Blood Orange and I ‘forced’ myself to thoroughly enjoy Bitter Chocolate Soufflé with Pistachio Ice Cream. And what a stunning green that pistachio is.

There was a strange moment (or about 35 moments) when our waiter entirely saw through us when we were quite keen to attract his attention so we could pay and leave. But we forgave them, we had enjoyed ourselves too much to be annoyed. I has to be said that Rowley can be a tad grumpy but he can sure cook so a three fabulous French/Anglais forks for Le Café Anglais Though I must admit their website could do with a bit of work.

And for the extremely welcome illumination the first of my 'bright' awards. Oh I nearly forgot in deference to Giles Coren and all the other (especially London) restaurant reviewers who have taken up the tap watery cause - the tap water was nice also!

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