So… the financial world has gone to hell in a handbasket. You still feel the need for your regular fix of French bistro food, but the credit crunch has curtailed your travel budget and trips across the channel just seem like an unnecessary extravagance. What to do, what to do?
Well, help is at hand, in the shape of Comptoir Gascon. By day, this little brother to Club Gascon tucked away behond Smithfield Market does double duty as a shop/artisan baker and restaurant, whereas at night the restaurant takes over entirely. The space is cosy and rustic but has a very relaxed and unfussy feel. As the name suggests, the speciality is dishes from the Gascony region of Southwest France, a region famous for its foie gras, truffles and many ways of preparing duck. But the main reason why we visited a couple of months ago with Johanna and her hubby Chris was because Comptoir Gascon is reputed to serve some of the best cassoulet in London, and I'm nothing if not a sucker for cassoulet.
The restaurant was fairly busy for a Saturday night in the City but not unpleasantly full or noisy. Service was efficient if not memorable, and there was much to like on the menu. To avoid having to make any agonizing choices, we began with a selection of starters to share between the four of us: a fresh bread selection including an intriguing wholewheat loaf with chunks of blue cheese in it and excellent butter; mackerel with orange zest and fontant potatoes; outstanding duck rillettes; and a glorious slab of foie gras. The mackerel was a revelation of deliciousness – why isn't citrus zest always compulsory with mackerel?? This was all washed down with an excellent Semillon from the very French wine list.
My main course cassoulet Toulousain was definitely the best I've had in London, with the proper gooeyness that comes from long, slow cooking together of the beans and meats. If I have any criticism, it would be that the confit duck leg was a little dried out, but overall this was great rib-sticking stuff. The cassoulet I had in Toulouse still beats this one, but like I said, going to Comptoir Gascon is a lot cheaper than a weekend in France! Nick was happy, if not ecstatic, with his onglet with Bordelaise sauce and frites (he pronounced the meat tasty but a bit stringy). Chris made an excellent choice with his slow-roast pork belly and artichoke mash, but Johanna said her roasted pollock with chorizo and mushrooms was unspectacular. A big winner, though, was the side order of carrot, fennel and artichoke barigoule that she and I shared – an aromatic vegetable puree topped with 2 artichoke halves – truly delicious.
When it came to dessert, I was struck with a serious case of order envy. I had gone for a warm apple tart which turned out to be a symphony in ordinariness. Next time I'll order what Johanna had, namely the omelette Pyreneenne. The closest I can come to describing it accurately would be something akin to a baked Alaska, with a boozy Agen prune hiding at the base. Wha's not to like??
Overall, we had a pleasant and unhurried evening and the food was very good, particularly the starters and the cassoulet. At about £50 each (inluding 2 bottles of wine between 4 people), prices are reasonable, especially considering the overall quality of the food. Francophiles are in for a treat, and think of all the money you'll save in Eurostar tickets!
63 Charterhouse Street
Tel. 020 7608 0851