Thursday, 20 January 2011

Le Café Anglais, Bayswater



At first, everything about Le Cafe Anglais seems huge. There's the room, so massive you can barely see from one end to the other and incorporating two sizeable bars. And the menu, which not only contains a bewildering number of dishes organised into nine or ten sections but is presented on a ludicrous single card in a clear plastic envelope which covered our small table like a laminated tablecloth. Having such a large number of dishes to choose from may have ordinarily been a problem - I'm inherently suspicious of big menus which too often point towards a lack of clear identity in a restaurant - but being pretty much the last food blogger in London to visit Le Cafe Anglais I came armed with a short list of 'must-orders', and anyway a quick scan of the items on offer revealed an attractive and reassuringly solid French Bistro theme of seafood and grilled meats. No pasta penne next to chicken tikka masala here.


Nibbling on raw radishes was a nice enough way to start the evening, although I was a bit miffed to later discover these came with a £3.70 cover charge. Am I the only person to find the idea of a restaurant automatically giving you something you didn't order, and then charging you for it, a bit off? And I'm sure it makes good business sense to offer "still or sparkling" and not tap water, but isn't it about time tap just arrived in restaurants automatically and we all put the environmentally damaging and vacuous bottled water industry out of business? Sorry, I'll get off my high horse now.




It was a delight, not to mention somewhat of a relief, to discover that the famed Cafe Anglais Parmesan Custard and Anchovy Toast was just as amazing as I'd been told. A thin but powerfully salty layer of anchovy was sandwiched in-between two delicate thin slices of toast, which you dip in kind of a light cheese mousse (the "custard") topped with crunchy grilled parmesan. It was fun and tasty and as far as I know unique to this restaurant. Carlingford rock oysters, which arrived at the same time, were also superb - somehow loosened while retaining all of their juices, a trick you don't see very often. But I wasn't at all a fan of some cold, formless aubergine 'Imam Bayildi' which was just unseasoned, oily gloop.



I probably would have been more impressed with the pike boudin if I'd not had a much better version at Brawn last month. This was admittedly a few quid cheaper than the one at Columbia Road, with a plain butter sauce instead of that fantastic lobster bisque, and it still had the same light texture inside, but there was something faintly unsettling about the overall taste - slightly synthetic, "like boil in the bag fish" my friend pointed out. And razor clams weren't at all pleasant - chewy and tasteless in a thin, insipid sauce that needed a lot more flavour and a lot more seasoning. If there's any seafood that desperately needs a Spanish-style grilling over charcoal, it's razor clams.



Fortunately, bruschetta with Iberico lardo saved the day - in fact they were so astonishingly good it's hard to believe they came out of the same kitchen as those razor clams. I am the worlds biggest fan of Iberico ham anyway, and here, draped over charred bread and drizzled with olive oil, they made the most perfect open sandwich you can imagine. Something about the slight bitterness of the char on the bread and the soft rich fat made a killer combination. Also very good was a small fillet of mackerel in a teriyaki dressing, boasting a good crispy skin and accompanied by some delicate sweet pickled cucumber.


Desserts were unspectacular but still pleasant enough to be worth the effort. My apple tart maybe would have been better if it was slightly less dense but had a lovely flavour and was topped with good homemade vanilla ice cream. Grilled pineapple too had an interesting mixture of flavours and textures, flakes of chilli and cloves studding the caramelised fruit.


We had to get the bill redone a couple of times - first they charged us for extra courses, then didn't account for our Toptable voucher, but even after the corrections this was a pricey meal - about £125 for two with a bottle of one of the cheaper wines on the list and a cheeky digestif with the desserts. And if there were a few more dishes that matched the level of the parmesan custard or the lardo, and a few less like the aubergine or razor clams, then it would probably have been worth the money, but as it stands I can't help feeling there are better ways to spend over a ton in central London. We emerged into the harsh strip-lighting of Whiteleys shopping centre largely sated but not exactly impressed enough to recommend it to anyone else, which is probably significant.

Rowley Leigh, the man behind Le Cafe Anglais, was in the restaurant last night but not cooking - he was on another table having dinner with friends. Given his well-publicised aversion to bloggers and their pesky habit of taking photos of their meals then putting them on the internet, it's probably just as well that he - ironically - didn't notice me snapping away, and in all likelihood will never read this review. But I bear no grudge to Rowley, who is obviously a very talented chef and runs a very successful restaurant (even this huge space was full last night), I just wish my meal had lived up to the size of the room, menu and price tag. In an evening of hits and misses, the misses were never disastrous and the hits may just be enough to tempt me back. After all, where else in London am I going to go for my fix of parmesan custard and anchovy toast?

6/10

Le Cafe Anglais on Urbanspoon

29 comments:

jamesramsden said...

Think the water thing would be a great campaign Chris. Restaurants should put a jug of tap down unless told otherwise. Bravo that man. Henceforth you should knock 2 marks off any restrunt failing to comply.

R x

PS The 'custard' is a custard, FTR.

Pavel said...

The Anchovy toast and Parmesan Custard looks insanely good to me, think I'll be giving that a go at home. Not sure I'd make the trip over though as you seem less than impressed with the rest...

Kay @ Chopstix2Steaknives said...

that was a bit cheeky of them...putting the radishes on the table and not saying that it will be charged! I have yet to go..at least now I know what to order.
I have yet to go...anchovy toast I have to order when I go.

Greedy Diva said...

I'm with you on the tap water. I ate at the Oyster Bar at Le Cafe Anglais last week and was really disappointed with it unfortunately - in terms of food, service and atmosphere. I've had the parmesan custard and anchovy toast before too, and it sounds like such a wonderful combination - but that also fell short of my expectations. I really wanted to like Le Cafe Anglais but it remains one of those places that leaves me feeling my money is better spent elsewhere.

Rowley Leigh said...

You're definitely wrong on one thing, Chris: I do read most of the blogs about us. I'd be a fool if I didn't listen to intelligent constructive criticism. I didn't see you snapping away and couldn't care less if you do or you don't: if you remember I merely said it was a funny way to spend a meal.

I'll look into the razor clams. I don't agree they need to be on a plancha but they should be juicy inside and out and packed with flavour. The aubergine I'll check out but most people love it and it is usually very consistent.Ditto boudin which has many fans. Lastly the cover charge is 1.85 not 3.70 and is a transparent charge for all the little extras, bread, radishes, filtered water (not bottled & charged separately for)& also reflects the'cover' - tablecloth & all. I think it is honest but there we go.

Come back and say hello next time.

Claire Strickett said...

Argh, cover charges. I don't understand them. If everyone who comes to the restaurant will get charged for their bread (and radishes and filtered water, in this case!) then why not simply incorporate the cost of these items into the cost of the dishes? After all, customers aren't billed separately (but without an option) for the electricity and gas charges their meal has incurred, or any other similar cost - these things are simply taken into account when pricing menus. If there's no way of avoiding cover charges, then what's the point of making them into a separate item? Just add a few pence to the cost of each dish.

Mozart's Girl said...

Interesting review...I haven't been for a while, although we spent New Year 2009/10 there & had a fab time. Also many happy weekend lunches. I hope it's not going downhill. Whenever I've eaten there, Rowley Leigh has been on the pass - I wonder if that's the difference? My husband and 12 friends (all boys) had their Christmas lunch there in December and all loved it. I gather there have been some design changes recently...the oyster bar wasn't there before. I'll have to visit again soon! Totally agree about the tapwater issue - I'm getting so sick of that face-off when they ask if you want 'still or sparkling' and you grit your teeth & say 'tap, thanks!' Should be obligatory like most of the US.

Anonymous said...

The restaurant manager of Le Cafe Anglais recently left to become restaurant manager of the new Vinoteca

Hugh Wright said...

A couple of points for Rowley Leigh (to whom, kudos for responding at least):

- £3.70 = £1.85 each for two people.

- How is it 'a transparent charge' if staff are still offering customers bottled water despite it being paid for by the cover charge? You should be told - verbally - what you're being charged for before you've had a chance to touch or taste it.

- Surely 'tablecloth and all' are what's known as overheads?

Nothing personal against Mr Leigh, I thought the food served at the London Restaurant Festival Big Quiz ( http://bit.ly/TPFP_H ) was terrific including the parmesan custard & grilled pineapple you had, but little things like this really niggle me. Some very fair points, as ever well made.

Northern Snippet said...

Agree about the cover charge,if you're going to make a charge for something it needs to be specified on the menu,for such a small amount its just not worth getting peoples backs up.
Razor clams are so easy to get wrong,go rubbery so easily.. no excuse at those prices though.

Jennifer said...

I'm really surprised about the water because one of the things I really liked about Le Cafe Anglais was each of the three times I've been there (in the space of three months and all over a year ago) I loved that glasses of water were brought without me even asking and there was no pressure to get bottles. I don't remember the cover charge either but I do agree that it's annoying. I thought it was only touristy Mediterranean restaurants that still did that.

Nice to see a response from Rowley. Kudos indeed.

Glad the anchovy toast lived up to the hype at least. :-)

Lizzie said...

I had a cracking meal at Le Caff a couple of years ago; I didn't pay so I didn't notice the cover charge. Shame really, perhaps they had an off night - I loved the pike boudin.

Guy T said...

I dined a a few tables down from Giles Coren at Le Cafe Anglais a couple of years ago - it was when he was marking down restaurants who didn't offer tap when asking for water orders. He was given a jug of iced tap unprompted and within seconds of sitting down.

I enjoy eating here tremendously, especially for a weekend lunch, however, my last meal (early Jan) was a little off its normally high standard, even with Mr Leigh manning the pass.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

The twice I've been there I've really enjoyed the food and the service.
Yes, not sure about cover charges...I'd be interested to know the root of this. As Rowley says is it actually a charge for the table cloth? Is this some traditional French thing?

Chris said...

Rowley: Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad your position on food bloggers has softened somewhat since 2009 :) I take your point on the cover charge (and did of course mean £3.70 for two) but I'm still not a fan of these unexpected extras. I realise it's only a small amount in the grand scheme of things but I can't help thinking by just absorbing the cost of radishes, tablecloth etc. elsewhere you'd have happier customers. Me, for one. I will be back soon anyway - I have another Toptable voucher to use up for a start - and I'll be sure to say hello.

Jennifer/Guy T: Interesting that you (and Mr Coren) didn't have to ask for tap, but perhaps it depends on the waiter. To be fair to LCA, plenty of other very good restaurants still don't offer tap unprompted, but it's one of those things that I've really started to notice, and it annoys me.

Kel said...

Radishes? Seriously? Agreed on the cover charges and with Claire's comments previously.

@Rowley Leigh... "also reflects the'cover' - tablecloth & all. I think it is honest but there we go."

In that case is it possible to have the meal without the table cloth and fore go the charge?

restaurantinyourhead said...

Been there more than once and could not agree more. The hits are spot on but the misses are so far off the mark and you cant help wondering what is going on in that kitchen.
Been to Jaffna house last night on your recommedation.
Can`t thatnk you enough - a revelation.

Mariel said...

I'm loving the radishes and dessert!

Anonymous said...

I've been to cafe anglais a number of times and was surprised that your bill came to £125 given the dishes you ordered. I cross checked what you eat with the menu and saw that only half of that was spent on food. I actually think cafe anglais offers pretty good value for money though I understand being disappointed as a result of the two poor dishes.

Anonymous said...

In regards to cover charges: In Italy they ask you to pay "coperto" when you sit down to eat but not, for example, if you choose to sit at the bar to have a coffee - maybe cover charges originated there? I s'pose it's the same way you pay a different price in some cafe's or lunch places if you're eating in or having it to take away. I don't think it's that much of an effontry to ask for it.

In regards to the "tap water" debate. I do agree that tap water should always be offered, but I don't like the idea of it being plonked down in front of you. First of all, some people would rather have bottled or sparkling water - surely that's their right as much as tap water is to others? And second of all, I would just find it really annoying to have a jug and glasses in my way without me asking - especially if I'm trying to read the menu, or was planning on having a soft drink etc instead - it just adds to the clutter.

Well that's my 2 cents anyway...

Mariel said...

Loving the new blog design!

tori said...

Ditto on the new design- and love the sound of that anchovy toast and parmesan custard. That is enough of an incentive for a trip over for me...

Eva Lai said...

On the topic of the new blog design, but this morning I actually saw a google ad on your blog advertising some Asia-Pacific burger, as in, looks like McDonalds but wasn't that. And I don't know if you would necessarily have approved of that ad. I actually made a screenprint for you, but lost it by now. Oops.

Eva Lai said...

I would like to be in a room that's so massive I can barely see from one end to the other!!! Sounds awesome!

Eva Lai said...

I would like to be in a room that's so massive I can barely see from one end to the other!!! Sounds awesome!

motor electric said...

I really like how the apple tart and grilled pineapple look. And I absolutely love homemade ice-cream. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy everything.

Salty said...

Liking the new look! Not sure where I stand on the cover charge thing - it does have a certain honesty about it I suppose as those prices would be inevitably tacked on somewhere else. But if you don't like radishes, bread, water or tablecloths - then what?
That said, I've had a couple of great meals at Le Cafe Anglais, the parmesan custard with anchovy soldiers is sublime and points to Mr Leigh, who unlike many chefs and restaurateurs, is actually there most of the time.

Salty said...

ps Mme Gastrogeek has the recipe for the famed PC with Anchovy toasts here: http://gastrogeek.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/parmesan-custard-with-anchovy-toast/#more-376

Anonymous said...

Late in the day, obviously, but I do have the impression that you prefer other kitchen vernaculars than French. This is of course your right but I don't think you should present your preferences as objective qualitative judgements.
I think the standard is high here if not perhaps as high as I'd like it to be and the inconsistency you claim is more about the differences in how much you liked the dishes you chose than their level of accomplishment.