Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Brasserie Zédel, Piccadilly
Anyone who's ever moaned about the price of eating out in London, consider this little scenario.
You're in Piccadilly, the heart of rip-off tourist London, a stone's throw from the Rainforest Café and God knows how many branches of Aberdeen Angus, and you're hungry. Finding anywhere worthy of your custom is a struggle in this part of town, but you spot a grand entrance to a new all-day brasserie just off Regent St and, deciding it's either that or something from Pret, you wander inside.
Down a plush staircase and into a vast, bright, high-ceiling room bedecked with marble columns and covered liberally with gold leaf, you are greeted by friendly staff in smart monochrome outfits and shown to a table. From the stubbornly French menu you order the soup du jour and kick back with a large basket of crunchy sliced baguette, salted butter and a jug of tap water. The soup is hot and fresh, hardly the world's greatest show of gastronomic fireworks but pleasant and filling, and you have few complaints.
The bill, including service, comes to £2.50.
Whatever else you think of Brasserie Zedel, and not everything was perfect, not by a long way, you just cannot argue with these prices. I don't know the last time you could eat in London with table service and leave with a bill of under a fiver, but I'm guessing it wasn't in this half-century. To put a menu together of such incredible value, set it in such plush surroundings and still make the numbers work is an achievement of monumental proportions - and all the more surprising that it's the brainchild of Corbin & King, whose other projects the Wolseley and the Delaunay are hardly famous for their egalitarian pricing.
Of course, when I and a couple of friends visited one evening last week, we weren't about to stick to soup and water. It is certainly possible to eat well for a pittance at Zedel, but once you've added in a bottle of Picpoul and a couple of courses, I think a more achievable budget is somewhere around the £20 mark - still good value for this kind of thing, just not quite as hilariously cheap.
Of the starters (none over £3), celeriac remoulade was pleasant, vichyssoise was the same after we'd added our own seasoning, and Oeufs durs mayonnaise was actually pretty good, sprinkled with paprika and with nice soft yolks in the eggs.
Mains were a bit more inconsistent - my own steak haché was probably the best of the lot, the mince having a pleasant loose texture and nicely crisped on the outside, although as with the vichyssoise I did have to manually beef up the seasoning, and the fries were pale and flacid. Andouillette is, as I'm sure the more cosmopolitan of you know, a kind of sausage made out of pig's intestines, and however many times I'm assured it's an "acquired taste" and not just some weird practical joke played by French pig farmers, I just can't stand the things. However my friend seemed reasonably happy with his choice - happy as a pig in shit you might say - so no harm done. But I'm afraid a watery prawn cocktail, plucked from the starters, was poor even by £7.75 expectations, and was pushed around the plate a bit before finally being ignored.
The lesson learned is that no matter what you're paying, a bad dish is still a bad dish, and by no means everything on the menu at Zedel is worth paying even a pittance for. But the decent dishes were lifted by the fact we hardly noticed a dent in our wallets, and the good were rendered extraordinary. That steak haché, for example, is available as part of a 2-course menu for £8.75 - admittedly the starter is carottes râpées (chopped carrots) but decent steak & chips for under a tenner even without the token veg would be worth the effort.
If you're looking for immaculately-prepared bourgeois French food, Zedel won't be your first choice. But as a bold experiment in glamorous budget dining for the masses, with enough highlights scattered in amongst the duds to make ordering well at the very least possible, it's worth anyone's while to give it a try. And if the experiment eventually ends in noble failure, at least we could say that for a brief moment in time, it was possible to have lunch in Piccadilly for £2.50. Make the most of it.