Tuesday 28 November 2023

Cord, Fleet Street

Basil Fawlty:
Are you dining here tonight, here in this unfashionable dump?

Mr. Johnson:
I wasn't planning to.

Basil Fawlty:
No, not really your scene is it?

Mr. Johnson:
I thought I'd try somewhere in town. Anywhere you recommend?

Basil Fawlty:
Well, what sort of food were you thinking of... fruit or...?

Mr. Johnson:
Anywhere they do French food?

Basil Fawlty:
Yes, France I believe. They seem to like it there, and the swim would certainly sharpen your appetite. You'd better hurry, the tide leaves in six minutes.

I make no apologies for starting by quoting the greatest sitcom of all time - in fact I probably should do it more often - but I couldn't think of a better way of illustrating the fact that back in the dark days of the 70s, when British food was largely brown Windsor soup, lamb casserole and gralefrit, we idolised the food of France, where they did things properly. Whipped into shape back in the 19th century by towering figures like Escoffier, French cuisine was disciplined, classy and intelligent while we were none of these things, and it was hardly surprising that for most of the last century, posh food meant French food.

Fortunately, British cuisine can now hold its head up and is quite rightfully now considered amongst the worlds finest, but the fact remains that the French got there first, and at its best l'haute cuisine still has the capacity to stun, bewilder and delight. In London specifically I'm thinking of places like Les 110 de Taillevent or Otto's, where they do everything by the classical book - vol-au-vents, Canard à la Presse, Tournedos Rossini - to superb effect. And now (at least since summer last year), there's restaurant Cord on Fleet Street, serving food so unashamedly, strictly French it should arrive from the kitchen accompanied by a brass band playing La Marseillaise.

French haute cuisine of course isn't just about your three courses but the extra bits of service and flair that frame the evening into something even more special. I'm thinking of things like this dainty cup of cep mushroom velouté, an amuse bouche of precisely the correct seasonality and form, which displayed the skill of the kitchen - the broth was superbly light and buttery, packing a great mushroom flavour - as well as an indication that Cord know exactly what time of year it is (not always a given in every top-end London restaurant, let me tell you), and exactly how to make the most of what's available. Cord are so proud of this dish, in fact, that they attempted to serve it again about 5 minutes after we'd finished the first - a charming little trip up that just made me like them more (we politely refused, though it took quite a bit of will power).

All the house bread was fantastic, but our favourite - inevitably - was a kind of pastry bun thing kind of halfway between a croissant and brioche. It was so distressingly moreish I literally had to move my side plate to the other end of the table to stop myself picking at it throughout the meal, and the accompanying butters - one salted, one parsley and escargot (topped with an actual snail!), did nothing to help with that dilemma.

The a la carte proper began, for me at least, with this lobster and sea urchin raviolo, a combination of skills and techniques that would send any lesser kitchen running in terror, but was absolutely beautifully done here. From the dainty but firm pasta to the perfect balance of flavours in the mixture (just enough sea urchin to provide a spritz of the seaside without overwhelming) to a rich lobster bisque, creamy and salty and seafoody, this was a world class example of the best French cooking. Had each element of this dish been less than brilliant, the whole house of cards would have come crashing down, but as I said, they know what they're doing at Cord. Masterful stuff.

Lamb sweetbreads were equally classy, glazed with late autumn herbs (chervil, sorrel, cobnuts) and served with a glossy, rich veal jus and what I think was a supremely smooth parsnip purée. One of the criticisms levelled at top-end French food is that it can be overly fussy, with too many pointless frills and textures vying for attention. This of course is not necessarily true, as demonstrated by this starkly beautiful dish, where the main ingredient is highlighted and enhanced by some extremely tasteful sauces and sides, and yet still feels as French as anything.

It's true to say, however, that there was quite a lot going on with my main course, a chicken supreme stuffed with black truffle presented with such straight, geometric exactness it was faintly exhausting to imagine the amount of work that might have gone into it. And again, all this visual flair would have been for nothing had it not impressed otherwise, but the chicken breast was beautifully tender, the black truffle mixture was rich and comforting, and the foie gras sauce impressed just as much with its buttery meatiness as the lobster bisque had with its rich seafood. Also, alongside the main tranche of chicken and truffle came a selection of winter veg in various forms that brought all sorts of colour and texture. So yes, at the Frenchier-end of French food, but all the better for it, in my opinion.

A nice bright-white fillet of brill, topped with various seaside succulents and served on a bed of coco beans, mussels and champagne velouté, also boasted a variety of clever techniques (I do love a split sauce) but made sure the main ingredient was cooked just-so, and everything else just helped make the most of it. Each time a new dish arrived with yet another fantastic sauce, it was an excuse to soak it up with more superb house bread, which just made you enjoy the experience even more.

"Black forest" was a kind of deconstructed schwarzwälder käsekuchen, with a white chocolate cheesecake base, cheery sorbet, a booze-soaked real cherry and a large fake cherry made out of kirsch mousse. Like everything that had come before, it was a great concept thoughfully and intelligently realised, with every element complimenting the whole perfectly. Oh, and some micro herbs and flowers which cleverly echoed an autumn forest floor.

Pistachio soufflé was another masterclass, but then that should hardly be a surprise by now. The soufflé held its shape well, the texture was smooth and satisfying without being too eggy, and the pistachio ice cream had a lovely strength of nutty flavour.

Two things to mention before we finish. Firstly, the prices - yes, I know. French haute cuisine has never, and will never be cheap, and with starters costing as much as you might expect to pay for mains in any given gastropub, you'd better hope they'd be worth the outlay. And I realise this is an invite (I realise I've been on a lot of invites recently; it's just the way it's worked out, honestly, there's no grand plan) and I didn't have to deal with the full weight of the bill, I still know value when I see it, and you can definitely pay more for worse at lots of different 5* hotel restaurants I can think of. Naming no names (DM me for details).

Secondly, Cord is a play on words of sorts, coming as it does from the Cordon Bleu group, with test kitchens and private dining events downstairs separate from their main campus in Bloomsbury. But I am assured (and I did ask) that both front of house and kitchen are selected purely based on ability, and trainees occasionally do a day or two here as part of their course, the core staff come from far and wide. And it really shows - apart from the incident with the double velouté, everything was on point and attended to, and everything from timing to execution was fairly close to faultless. Staff, in fact, seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as we were, and why shouldn't they?

So yes, unfashionable as it has occasionally been to say so, French fine dining has never really gone away, it just needed the right opportunity to shine. Cord is that opportunity and then some, a reminder that when done well, there's no such thing as bad cuisine, just bad restaurants. That in 2023, over a century since London started falling in love with this kind of thing, it's still finding new opportunities to endear itself to the city. Now, isn't it about time we started doing the same for Paris?


I was invited to Cord and didn't see a bill. If you fancy grabbing a table yourself - and I very much suggest you do - use this link so they know you came from here. I don't get any reward, it'll just give me a bit of bragging power.

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