Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Les 110 de Taillevent, Marylebone
A couple of weeks ago I went to an event held to publicise the launch of a range of new flavours of Kettle Chips. Ordinarily, I would not be that interested in a new flavour of Kettle Chips, and I suspect Kettle Chips know this as well because to ensure a very healthy attendance from London's gathered foodie people they paid Simon Rogan to cook us a three course dinner. So we started with Wensleydale cheese dumplings with butternut squash (a light, herby dish that brought to mind a Westcombe Cheddar course from a life-changing meal at l'Enclume a few years back), then had Gressingham Duck breast and leg with creamed kale and Wiltshire truffle (all kinds of wonderful, nuanced and rich with the flavours of late autumn) and finally Maldon salted chocolate and jasmine with sorrel (soft/crisp textures and chocolate/citrus balanced to world-class effect). It was, in short, a masterclass by what I'm going to go ahead and call the UK's best chef, whether he likes it or not. Oh, and the chips weren't bad either (my fav was the Wensleydale cheese).
But adding to the thrill of the food itself was the knowledge that so much of what made it good was home grown. Rogan may have been trained in classical French techniques under the likes of Marco Pierre White but his style is so unmistakeably Britain 2015, and the ingredients he uses so specific to these islands that he just couldn't be working anywhere else. After a recent fairly uninspiring trip to Paris, coupled with a weekend in Cornwall where everything we ate was in some way exciting, new or interesting, I had pretty much decided that the UK was in fact now the best place to eat in the world. France? Pah.
And yet, here comes Les 110 des Taillevent to remind us all that, actually, there's no such thing as bad cuisine, just bad restaurants, and though it may not be very trendy to admit it these days, French food can still be thrilling when they pull out all the stops.
There's a history of famous foreign brands or high profile restaurants coming to London, expecting to be treated like the Second Coming then having their sorry arses handed to them. Keith McNally's Balthazar is the most obvious recent example, a temple of New York restaurant culture recreated painstakingly in Covent Garden to almost every last detail, except somehow also serving hopeless sub-Cafe Rouge food. It's inexplicably popular but don't let that fool you. There's also Five Guys, which I've enjoyed when I've visited in the US but over here has morphed into something sloppy and tasteless, but also oddly expensive. It's also wildly popular, because people are idiots.
Anyway hopes weren't high for Les 100 de Taillevent, who have a flagship 2 Michelin star restaurant in Paris (where a dish of Lièvre de la Beauce - hare pie - costs €138) and have chosen a grand room on Cavendish Square to open their first UK venture. And a quick glance at the menu on the way in did little to reassure - a £29 lobster salad starter, £21 for saddle of lamb, and a very confusing arrangement of wines by the glass in odd 70ml measures, it all pointed towards another flashy, expensive failure; arrogant French, coming over here, thinking they know how to run a restaurant! The nerve.
And yet, from the moment we were sat down and the lovely smiley service appeared, it all seemed to click into place. The wine list is big, and initially rather confusing, but is actually a rather neat way of tasting some pretty big wines for not much money. For example, I don't know how many people could afford a full bottle of Louis Roederer Rosé 2010, but how about £15.50 for a 70ml shot? Each of the 110 wines are matched with a particular course, in four price categories; none of them are exactly cheap, but it's at least honest and it's quite good fun choosing your own matches.
But that's the wine. What about the food? Poached duck egg with lardons, champignons de Paris and baby onions was a warm, hearty dish of bold flavours and soft textures, like a walk through a forest after a rainstorm. Nothing foraged, no cubes of aerated watercress or pickled Alexander, just mushrooms, onions, bacon and a poached duck egg, seasoned to perfection. I loved it.
Similarly langoustine ravioli with basil and citrus butter, a very cleverly balanced dish, which spoke of real skill in the kitchen. The silky, just-so pasta, the smooth butter sauce with a gentle tang of lemon, the meaty seafood filling, this was precise, confident cooking, hardly groundbreaking but still deeply enjoyable, and the kind of thing you rarely see in London. At least, not if you're the kind of person who just leaps from one Foraged Modern British opening to the next, confident you're not missing out on anything interesting in some stuffy French temple of fine dining. Ahem.
Pâté en Croûte was a beauty, pink chunks of tenderly layered meat (pork definitely but I think also perhaps pigeon breast?) studded with pistachio nuts and topped by a glorious ribbon of meaty aspic. You would not want for a better pâté en croûte, and if you're wondering why you don't see many of them in London, Google a recipe. Only the French could come up with a method so ludicrously time consuming and difficult. So thank you L110dT for making the effort.
When was the last time you ate a vol-au-vent? Personally I think it may have been at a family gathering at my grandmother's house in Liverpool in the 1980s, frozen pastry casings filled with a mixture that tasted like Heinz mushroom soup. Which of course meant they tasted great, albeit slightly unsophisticated. Here, L110deT have given them the full fine dining treatment, with luxurious strips of lamb sweetbread and meaty crayfish, in one of those complex meaty sauces that the French do so well.
Another main course of saddle of lamb was literally just that (alongside a roasted garlic clove and a twig of raw rosemary) and so needed the suggested side of ultra-French Robuchon-style buttered mash. But it was cooked well and had a good flavour and still disappeared without complaints.
I'll forgive a couple of service issues (staff were very reluctant to bring tap water for some reason, and forgot one of the sides) because it's early days, and because so much of everything else was so good. The room, too, is worth a mention - grand but not intimidating, and with soft furnishings and seating so plush and comfortable you want to stay overnight. It's for the most part already a mature and self-assured operation from top to bottom, a fantastic place for a celebration or special occasion. Oh, and though we didn't have room for them, I've heard on the grapevine the desserts are wonderful; all the more reason to go back.
So thank you Les 110 de Taillevent, not just for the effort you've clearly put into the food and the room but for being such a great cultural ambassador for French cuisine, at a time when it threatens to be dismissed (and I've been as guilty of this as anyone in the past) as irrelevant, expensive and dull. L110dT may stretch the wallet a bit (the bill was about £50 a head), but it's great fun and there are desperately few other places in London doing this kind of thing to this standard. It turns out the French can run a restaurant after all. Who knew?