When people hear that I have a food website, they jump to all sorts of conclusions. For a start, they panic that when I come to their house for a meal I will photograph their food and then write a scathing critique of their cooking skills on my blog. (OK, they are probably right about the photographing part!). They assume that I cook as if I have guests every night, and never come home late from work and bung oven chips and frozen breaded fish fillets in the oven. (Oops, have I said too much?) Or colleagues will pass by my desk at lunch and rubberneck at what I am eating, thinking it must surely be artisanal sourdough topped with foie gras and a side order of caviar. Hah. Not so much. They are far more likely to find me munching on a cheddar and coleslaw, or a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich. And yes, sometimes these are from Tesco. Mea culpa.
So when I DO leave my desk and go out to lunch, I am usually looking for something diametrically opposed to my usual boring sandwich. And I am pleased to say that last week I found lunch Nirvana practically on my office doorstep. Club Gascon was opened in 1998 near Smithfield Market in Clerkenwell by Vincent Labeyrie and chef patron Pascal Aussignac and is one of London’s best-loved French restaurants. As the name suggests, the restaurant specialises in fine cuisine from South-West France, and it was not long before they were awarded a Michelin star. I liked the place as soon as we walked in; small but full of beautiful things, like the pistachio-coloured banquettes, the distressed silver ceiling, the gigantic flower arrangement on the bar, and the very beautiful curved wooden screens. And we won’t even start on the tableware – I don’t think I have ever seen more covetable ceramics in a restaurant.
As we looked at the menu we nibbled on the extra long and extra thin cheese straws that you see in the pot above and on the excellent bread, baked on the premises apparently. The bread was accompanied by two types of butter – a chantilly butter and a smoked seasalt butter (absolutely gorgeous). The a la carte options are obviously heavy on the foie gras, for which the restaurant is known, but there is much to like even if you are not a fan of duck liver. There is a 5-course tasting menu available for £55 (or £85 with wines from the almost exclusively French wine list), but we went for the Chef’s special: a three course lunch menu with 3 choices for each course.
I started with the clam and mussel éclade, one of the more intriguing dishes I have had lately. For those who do not know (me included, until last week!) an éclade des moules is a bake often held on the beaches outside La Rochelle on the Western French coast in which mussels are arranged in concentric circles on a plank so that the hinged part of the shell is facing up. Pine needles are then mounded on top to a depth of about a foot and set on fire. The needles burn down quickly, while their thich, aromatic smoke flavours the mussels. Once the fire goes out, the ashes are swept away and the mussels are eaten directly from the shell. This is a riff on that dish, with the excellent shellfish served cold over a bed of smouldering pine needles, accompanied by crispy seaweed and samphire. The ultra-thin black toasts are made with black squid ink and topped with rather fabulous oyster chantilly butter. I loved everything abotu it – the theatre, the flavour, the novelty. Just wonderful. Elswhere at the table, others enjoyed a starter of glazed quail, frosted Lillet, and aromatic olives, where the quali meat seemed lkiterally wrapped in its own skin and the bright flavour of the Lillet granita balanced the richness of the meat.
For our main course, we were all seduced by the siren call of pork and settled Old Spot pork variations with a braised fennel salad and squid chorizo chutney. The variations consisted of a piece of loin so meltingly tender and so perfectly, uniformly pink that I suspect it may have been cooked sous vide; and an absolutely addictive croquette of (I think) pork trotter – if not trotter, then some other unloved cut of pork where the fat outweighs the meat. Encased in light, crispy breadcrumbs, it was a bite of piggy heaven. The chutney added oomph to the mildly flavoured pork and I liked the faintly aniseedy crunch of the fennel.
Dessert, though, was the real show-stopper for me – and I had chosen it pretty much as soon as we sat down! Seriously, how can you NOT order a chocolate cigar with Armagnac and coffee granita? I’m a sucker for a bit of playful food theatre, and that’s exactly what arrived on my square of black slate: a crispy chocolate pastry “cigar” filled with smoked chocolate ganache; plus the coffee and armagnac granita served in a cognaac glass and topped with an almond milk foam. And at the end of the cigar, a little pile of caster sugar and teensy chilli flakes to signify ash and the glow of a lit cigar. I was smitten – and that was before I’d even tasted the smoky ganache (truly stupendously good) and the alcoholic granita. Just sublime. My two neighbours both opted for something less chocolatey: a lemon posset with honey meringues and passion fruit mousse dollops, which was lovely and light and served in a glass dish of epic proportions.
And as a final flourish, we were served some of the best petit fours I have had in a while: spicy almonds (in dark chocolate and cocoa; excellent chocolate truffles, alcoholic raisins in dark chocolate; and excellent, zingy citrus and Pastis jellies, all served atop slightly chewy wafer-thin folds of burnt caramel. Very moreish.
Service is very French but not at all snooty, nor over-familiar – a balance that French waitstaff seem to strike so effortlessly. The wine list contains almost exclusively French wines but there is a fair selection in the £30-£40 price range, and our charming sommelier was very helpful in choosing an aromatic white wine to match our varied courses. The August lunch special that we had is an astonishing £22 for 3 courses which is probably the best value lunch I have ever had in the City (it runs through until the end of August so if you hurry, you can still catch it). As for me? I think I am in love. Vive la France!
For something less formal from the same stable, you can also try Cellar Gascon next door, or Comptoir Gascon on the other side of Smithfield Market.
Liked: the crockery, the excellent food, the playful plating
On a scale of 1 to 10: 9
57 West Smithfield
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7796 0600
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7796 0601