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?