Two weeks ago I had the great pleasure of spending an evening in the company of two of my favourite food bloggers: Johanna and Pille. Our dinner booking was only for 20h30, which is probably a good thing as this gave Pille and me a chance to spend an hour or so enthusing about our shared recent discovery of the joys of skiing. So we strolled down to the Thames and had a drink on The Yacht, one of the many vessels moored along the Embankment that operate as bars. Wonderful view of the London skyline, great company and unlimited ski talk – does life get any better??
But the evening could not all be about skiing and at the appointed hour we presented ourselves at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in Baker Street. Galvin is the brainchild of brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin. Chris got his start in culinary life when, as a teenage pot-washer in a the Old Log restaurant in Brentwood he encountered sous chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson and was entranced. Catering college followed (for both brothers) and then an apprenticeship in some of London's best restaurants. Chris's impressive CV includes stints at The Ritz, Worrall's Menage a Trois (New York), L'Escargot, The Lanesborough Hotel, Orrery and The Wolsley. Jeff's includes The Savoy Hotel, The Capital Hotel, Chez Nico, The Greenhouse and The Oak Room. The brothers also worked together at Orrery and L'Escargot, but in 2005 they decided to step off the Michelin-star treadmill and open their own restaurant – in the French bistro style. (For those wishing to sample the brothers' more formal offerings, they also run Galvin at Windows at the Park Lane Hilton where the views are spectacular and the cuisine is modern French).
I must say that my first impression was one of mild chaos – there was some kerfuffle at the door with a queue snaking almost onto the pavement. It was hard to tell whether the people ahead were coming or going – some seemed to be perusing menus which seemed to suggest we could ease past them and join Johanna at the table, but others were waiting for coats stored in a cupboard which opened outwards into the queue, so there was much shuffling to and fro and not much chance of getting past. Eventually the crowd cleared a little and we managed to indicate that we were joining a friend who was already seated. Both Pille and I had our jackets and bags ready to hand over to be stored in the coat cupboard, but the reception staff were by this stage so flustered that nobody asked us for our coats and we were ushered straight through to the table. I wouldn’t have minded, had it not been for the fact that a) other tables had clearly had the opportunity to hand in their coats, and b) the restaurant is not the most spacious, and coats and bags would definitely have been better off out of the way!
Nevertheless, we were eventually seated and handed menus, and had a moment to take stock of our surroundings. My first impression of the place is that it does indeed look like a reasonably smart Parisian bistro, minus maybe some Art Deco features. My second impression was that it was pretty seriously noisy – lots of chattering people and no soft furnishings to absorb any sound. And my third and least pleasant impression was one of smokiness. Clearly Galvin’s faithful rendition of a French bistro extends to the French smoking policy: they don’t even have non-smoking tables! And we had the misfortune of being seated next to a table who smoked between each and every course. Let me assure you that I will be the first to run through the streets of London in a one-woman victory parade when the ban on smoking in restaurants comes into effect later this year – nothing spoils a good meal for me quite as effectively as being forced to view your plate and your companions through a haze of second-hand smoke. But seeing as there was no escaping to a non-smoking table, we just had to grin and bear it.
The menu further reinforces the impression that you are in fact in the Montmartre rather than Marylebone: Bayonne ham, pork rillettes, confit duck leg, tarte tatin – it reads rather like a comforting greatest hits selection of bistro favourites. (There is also a terrifically well-priced pre-theatre menu – £17.50 for three courses – but this only runs between 6 and 7pm.) Having discussed our choices and made up our minds, we placed our order and the waitress assured us that the sommelier would be along shortly to take our wine order. So far so good. In the interim, I though I might go and wash my hands, so I attracted the attention of a passing waiter to ask directions. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
COOKSISTER: Excuse me – where is your ladies’ room?
WAITER: [look of panic flitting across his face] One moment, madame, I will call somebody.
[Cooksister looks perplexed. Waiter approaches a waitress, a huddled discussion ensues, culminating in his pointing Cooksister out to the waitress, who approaches.]
WAITRESS: Yes madame?
COOKSISTER: I would like to use your ladies’ room please.
WAITER: [eyeing customer warily] For…. ?
COOKSISTER: [by now fully bewildered, with no idea what answer is expected in this unusual situation] Erm, well, for me!
WAITRESS: [still not convinced of the legitimacy of this request] Do you want the toilet?
COOKSISTER: Well, I wasn’t quite going to put it like that but… yes!
WAITRESS: It’s the door on the left.
Was that really so hard?? I understand that English is not everybody’s first language, but I have asked that same question in restaurants across the capital, addressing waitstaff that spoke a variety of languages and I have never had such a bizarre response. And "ladies' room" is not exactly an obscure phrase! Maybe staff dealing with a largely English-speaking clientele in a country where the official language just so happens to be English could be taught some of the basic non-food-related phrases that customers might throw at them? Just a thought. Or maybe it's just the fact that I look like a rampant coke fiend who will cover their bathroom in fine white powder?! :o)
Anyway, I didn’t have long to ponder this as the starters arrived almost as soon as I returned to the table – but no sign yet of the sommelier. In fact, he only arrived when we were more than halfway through our starters without a word of apology. Okeydokey. He seemed knowledgeable enough (and he was English, which I thought was quite an avant garde step for a French restaurant to take!) but by then we were just keen to have any wine to accompany our starter and were in no mood to enter into lengthy discussions. We eventually settled on a fairly light red which was meant to be a compromise between our varied menu choices – drinkable but not memorable. And at around £15, who wants to quibble?
Right – what about the food then? Pille started with the special of the day – a pressed ham hock terrine which she pronounced to be lovely (and the nibble I had was indeed rich and lovely). Johanna and I both started with the Bayonne ham and celeriac remoulade. This was just perfect. The ham was silky and smoky and salty, and the crisp, clean taste of the celeriac remoulade was the perfect foil. But what really made the remoulade for me were the tiny and excellent capers distributed throughout it – little nuggets of saltiness to prove that good things really do come in small packages. For our main courses we all tried something different. For the first time in human memory, I was confronted with a menu containing confit duck leg – and I did not order it. Believe it… or not. Instead I went for the pork cheeks on puy lentils with Lyonnaise sausage. Johanna found she could not resist the confit duck, and Pille went for the other dish that sorely tempted me – a deliciously seasonal gnocchi with green peas, morels and asparagus (photo below courtesy of Pille). My pork cheeks were the epitome of melting tenderness – one touch of the fork and the meat fell apart. And the flavoursome Lyonnaise sausage (a cousin of Toulouse sausage?) worked well with the decidedly undersalted meat. Nestled in the lentils was also a strip of fatty pork belly, like an unexpected gift in your fortune cookie. All in all, it was a plate of porky goodness and really good. Johanna’s duck was perfect – fall-apart meat and crispy skin, well-matched by the garlic sausage slices that accompanied it. But it was Pille’s dish that won my heart – the gnocchi were the French style (which I last had at Arbutus and fell in love with). They are made with choux pastry rather than potatoes and are lighter than the Italian style – these were also fried to a golden crustiness on the outside. The sauce was a wonderful vivid green studded with whole peas, pungent morels and fat spears of asparagus (oh, how I have missed you all through winter!). The taste I had instantly gave me serious plate-envy! The only question mark was the discrepancy in the levels of seasoning of the three dishes. My pork cheeks were virtually unsalted, while Pille’s gnocchi dish was (if anything) slightly oversalted, with Johanna’s coming in somewhere in between these two extremes. But this was an observation rather than a criticism. All three dishes were delicious and beautifully executed and I would happily recommend them all.
Dessert was where my camera batteries unexpectedly gave up the ghost before I snapped my own dessert – so you will have to rely on my description there. Maybe it was the onset of spring, maybe it was the comparatively rich dishes we had eaten for the other two courses, but not one of us went for something chocolatey for dessert. Particularly when Johanna and I are at your table, this is a Very Unusual Event Instead, all three of us went for something with fruit. Pille could not resist the buttermilk pannacotta with poached rhubarb (photo courtesy of Pille): creamy and wobbly + tart and pink = perfect. Johanna went for the soufflé with macerated strawberries – lovely texture to the soufflé and wonderful deep flavour to the strawberries. And I thought what the hell, let’s overdose on bistro food and went for the tarte tatin with Calvados cream. Oh yes, this was the right choice. The apples were absolutely perfectly caramelised, something that I still have to try and have the nerve to perfect, and the Calvados cream was the consistency of clotted cream, only laced with alcohol. Oh my word. Very highly recommended.
The bill with wine, water and service came to £38 per person, which I thought was very reasonable given the excellent quality of the food. Overall, I thought it was an excellent approximation of a French bistro and certainly cheaper than a trip to Paris I could not find fault with any of the food at our table and I would be quite happy to go back there – but after 1 July when the smoke ban takes effect! If anything Bistrot de Luxe’s weak point appears to be its staff. Granted, the restaurant was packed on the night that we visited, but sadly the incidents described were intrusive enough to linger in the memory – and all of them could easily have been avoided. Excellent food is, of course, what you want in a restaurant, but competent service that leaves you feeling a little pampered would also be nice.
Liked: the food, very much!
Disliked: slightly odd service; the smoke from nearby tables
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
66 Baker Street
Tel. 020 7935 4007
Fax. 020 7486 1735