Friday, 3 February 2012
Léon de Bruxelles, Covent Garden
I really like the idea of a Belgian moules frites restaurant. I'm sure a good moules frites restaurant would be a wonderful thing - after all, I like mussels and I like chips and I'm very much on board with the concept of combining both in one meal. Unfortunately, whilst we can probably all agree that the idea of moules frites is a Good Thing, for some reason the reality of actually eating the stuff in London has proved remarkably elusive. Belgo used to be good, at one time, before the original owners left and their replacements devoted their energies to expanding the chain rather than serving good food. And you can certainly order mussels and chips in various bistros in the smarter areas of town if you feel like throwing money at the problem, but what we are missing is a dedicated moules frites specialist, informal and not too expensive, where you can drink strong Belgian beer and splatter yourself with seafood gunk and still walk away with change from £20.
At first glance, brand-new Léon de Bruxelles on Cambridge Circus seems like it might fit the bill. It's informal, bright, attractive, populated by pleasant staff and boasting a clear and reasonably concise menu. True, £14 for a bowl of mussels and chips isn't the world's greatest bargain, but for this month only there's 50% off the mussels dishes (why just this month I'm not sure, but I guess that's up to them) and if they taste good enough then even full price they'd be worth a punt. I sat down with high hopes, assuming that a dedicated moules frites restaurant stood more of a chance of getting it right than anywhere else, and ordered the "Léon mussels".
The bread was good, I suppose. A nice crusty French baguette with a moist inside, it almost definitely wasn't made in house and would be completely unremarkable in the context of almost anywhere else but as the rest of the food at Léon de Bruxelles was so mediocre it's only really the bread that I remember as having any flavour. The chips, were example, were awful - bland, floury tubes of empty carbohydrate, like oven chips only not as dynamic or noteworthy. They were totally unseasoned, too, which I realise is only a case of having to grind your own salt on, but does indicate a lack of attention to detail.
Worse, though, was the bowl of "Léon mussels". Fresh, plump and generously numerous mussels were tragically abused by a thin white liquid so insipid it tasted of nothing more than skimmed milk. There was the odd chunk of boiled celery knocking about but I didn't detect any shallot, and ploughing through the huge bowl was a grim, entirely unrewarding slog. In an effort to make the poor wee blighters taste of something - anything - I tried adding my own salt, but only ended up with salty milk and mussels. This was a very poor dish, one that wouldn't have survived even the briefest of taste tests from someone in the kitchen; I can only assume nobody bothered. That, or Léon de Bruxelles really did mean to serve hot mussels and milk, and neither scenario puts them in a very good light.
There is also the matter of the beer. Given the astonishing variety and quality of beers from Belgium, I can think of no reason other than naked, exploitative profit-mongering that Léon de Bruxelles would unironically place Stella Artois next to Duvel on the menu, and grace it with an entirely fictitious tasting note. I guess "Malty with a pronounced hoppy bitterness" is nicer to read than "all the flavour of heavily diluted cat's piss" but it doesn't make it any more true.
A mild saving grace came in the form of the bill, which was only £7 thanks to the half-price offer and my decision to drink tap water. But from the end of the month that bowl of mussels a la dishwater will be a sickening £14, and will have graduated from disappointing-but-cheap to a genuine good old-fashioned Covent Garden rip-off. If Léon de Bruxelles want to be the Garfunkels of moules frites then good luck to them, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. Perhaps it's not worth getting worked up about - after all this is only another superficial, overpriced tourist-trap in a prime location, hardly the first of its kind and almost definitely not the last. But it's also another chance for our visitors to have their prejudices confirmed about food in the capital, and I really just wish it wasn't there.