Ladurée

Address: 1 The Market, WC2E 8RA 
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 4/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.34.13People living in London are almost tragically grateful for the merest hint of warm weather. Particularly at this time of year, when we have been hibernating under hats, coats, scarves and gloves for the preceding seven months. Like starving people unleashed on an all you can eat buffet, the population of London floods into parks and beer gardens, strolls along the bank of the Thames and fights for space on wind-blasted rooftop terraces.

We at Life at the End of a Fork are no better. When, a few weeks ago, London was warmly embraced by a one week micro-summer, we surged out of our respective offices in search of somewhere to dine al-fresco. Exchange Square was dangerously crowded, every single blade of grass either sat or stood on, and hundreds of people snaking around the block for the right to buy a pint of cider for £6. Rather than risk being stampeded by sun-crazed city workers, we travelled down to Covent Garden.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.15London is bereft of many good outdoor dining choices, which is understandable, given the miserable weather. The few slices of pavement that you can eat on normally sit in the shade of some vast building, which obliterates any wan ray of sunshine which may have penetrated the clouds.

One exception to this is Covent Garden, where a number of restaurants do allow for sun basking. We found ourselves in one of these: Laduree. It is a strange place. The staff are so incompetent that at times you wonder whether they are actually playing an elaborate prank on you, that this is not a restaurant at all, but part of some slapstick social experiment designed to see how far a diner can be pushed before he or she finally suffers an apoplectic fit.

One example from the start of our meal will give you a flavour. The couple next to us had been served coffees, and asked staff if they could have some sugar. A grinning waiter returned five minutes laterwith an enormous pot of mayonnaise, dumped it on the table and departed before they could register protest.  We offered them the sugar that sat on our table, at which point the clownish waiter returned, grin still fixed ear to ear, and transferred the mayonnaise to our table. Coffee and mayonnaise…? Perhaps that’s all the rage in the Parisian bistros that Laduree apes.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.47The food was tolerable. My partner in culinary crime continued her life-time ambition to eat smoked salmon in every restaurant she sits down in, and declared Laduree’s offering to be “pleasant enough”, although you’d probably want praise more extravagant than that to justify an £18 price tag.  I had a cheese board and a tiny little roll of bread that would have been too insultingly small to throw to one of the many pigeons that were marauding around the square.

We both ordered the lobster roll in brioche buns for a main course. These were decent enough, slightly inferior to the sort of thing you’d get for half the price in a Burger and Lobster.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.28.53The dining area is directly next to the space in Covent Garden that is given over to magicians and various other ‘comic’ performers. During the hour and a half in which we sat there we saw a man performing some basic tricks on a yo-yo (whilst heckling the audience for not applauding enthusiastically enough), and then some break-dancers in tracksuits, who rolled around on the floor and jumped over each other a few times. I thought of suggesting that the waiters and waitresses of Laduree offer themselves up as entertainment. Their serving skills were certainly more comical than the gentleman and his yo-yo.

Any humour however, was removed from proceedings when the bill arrived. It was comfortably north of £100. I started to feel as if I was suffering from sunstroke.

Stay away from Laduree, whatever the weather.

Brasserie Zedel

Address: 20 Sherwood Street, London W1
Bookings: no booking
Day:  Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.05.17I find it impossible to dislike Brasserie Zedel. It is huge, it is theatrical, it is opulent. It is a pastiche piece of Art Deco Paris buried in the bowels of a particularly unattractive part of Central London. To get there, we walked past the Rainforest Café, and then a Jamie’s Italian encased in one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen in my life. Running this gauntlet of miserable architecture only enhanced the playful grandeur of Brasserie Zedel, its top-hatted doorman ushering us into a cavernous space of marble columns, oak walls, dimly-lit jazz bars and velvet banquettes.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.04.33It is also cheap (although not as absurdly cheap as when I went there several years ago). Starters are arranged on the menu by price, ranging from £2.95 for pumpkin soup to £9.75 for a plate of snails. A French onion soup sits handsomely in the middle at £5.75. There can be few better value restaurants in London.

We turned up without a reservation, banking on the fact that it was a Tuesday, and that the restaurant has the capacity of a small football stadium. It was near run thing. A waiter, who looked about 12-years’ old, chaperoned us to one of the few vacant tables in the building, next to the long, elegant bar.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.03.09I threw myself into a chicken liver parfait, which was smooth, dense with flavour, and, when spread all over thick white bread, intensely filling. My partner in culinary crime polished off a plate of succulent smoked salmon.

My main course styled itself a Steak Hache, but to all intents and purposes was just a really nice hamburger – minus the buns – sat in a pepper sauce. The beef was full-bodied and earthy, bubbling with the rich vigour of the countryside. It was everything that a McDonalds patty is not, and despite the latter swearing blind that every granule is 100% pure beef, it is difficult to convince your taste buds that the two products ever sprung from the same creature.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.04.18Meanwhile, my partner in culinary crime chewed her way through a tough-ish ribeye steak. The meat had the tired quality of an animal that has lived a hard, challenging life. Two cups of French fries were chilly and bland.

But the odd mediocre dish does not spoil a place like Brasserie Zedel. You don’t go there for the best cooking in London. You go there for the vast spaces, the sense of eating somewhere fun and light-hearted, the aura of another time and place. I felt that at any moment Hercule Poirot, complete with stick-on moustache and cartoon French accent, might glide out of the Bar American. That two people can experience all this for £70, including drinks, makes Brasserie Zedel a place worth cherishing.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.02.54We left with our 2018 dietary plans yet again blown to smithereens, but our bank balances blessedly intact.

Frenchie

Address: 16 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH
Bookings: Booked through Open table
Day: Friday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.49Friday night saw my partner in culinary crime and I on our last pre-Christmas restaurant excursion. For this valedictory event, we picked Frenchie, the 2016 offering from French chef Gregory Marchand.

Marchand has something of an interesting backstory. Placed in an orphanage at the age of 12, after his mother died, he cooked his first dish (escalope normande… a type of chicken) when the home’s chef was having a weekend off. Cooking became a form of self-defence, his talent for whipping up concoctions in the kitchen earning him the protection of bigger – but very hungry – kids in the orphanage.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.16At the age of 16, he left and joined a culinary school, before moving to London in his 20s to begin a cooking odyssey across a number of the capital’s prominent restaurants, including the Savoy Grill and Electric. He also worked as the head chef at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen.

It was Jamie Oliver who, summoning all his immense wit and creativity, dubbed Marchand ‘Frenchie’, a name which became Marchand’s personal brand when he set his up own restaurant in Paris in 2009. After many accolades and much adulation, and a stint cooking in New York, he came back to London last year, bringing his Frenchie brand with him.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.19.29

And we’re glad that he did. Frenchie is a good restaurant, and a fun one as well. It is not tethered to strict French culinary traditions, either in terms of the food it serves, or the ambience it cultivates.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.37The menu was small, but interesting. I launched into a dish of burrata, with slices of avocado, pickled onion and olives. It came with great shards of crisped bread which were useful tools for scooping up the burrata, which was perfectly creamed on the inside, soft and delicate.

My partner in culinary crime honed in on the sea bream tartare, with yuzu, quinoa and chestnuts. As someone who has eaten more raw fish than a leopard seal, her verdict on such dishes carries weight, and she pronounced it excellent, light and fresh, carrying that sharp undertone that characterises the best fish tartare.

For my main course, I had the pan seared gnocchi, which came with shimeji mushrooms, potato confit and tarragon. It was an excellent twist on gnocchi, well sauced, powerful and full bodied, the texture excellent.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.26As I was wolfing this down, my partner in culinary crime was grumbling that her roast duck was too tough. Looking up, I saw that she was sawing at it with the wrong side of the knife… once this was pointed out, and the knife was flipped, the duck cut beautifully. She declared it succulent, the exterior well-crisped, the interior bursting with flavour.

We finished off with a selection of 3 cheeses: Spenwood, an unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese, a lovely Innes Log, which is a goat’s cheese, and a Deauville, from France. Only the Deauville missed the mark, with a 4-second aftertaste so smoky it felt as if you’d swallowed a small ash tray.

So, dinner was a success, not tainted even by the occupants of our adjacent table who talked loudly, at length, and in detail, about a range of operations recently undergone on various body parts, which isn’t ideal background music for the eating of gnocchi or cheese.

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Never mind. My partner in culinary crime and I are fleeing London for Christmas, but we shall pop up again before New Year, to regale you with further culinary adventures. Have a lovely Christmas.

Iberica

Farringdon is one of London’s neglected food neighbourhoods, somewhat overshadowed by adjacent Clerkenwell, and entirely drowned out by the clamour around Soho’s ever evolving warren of innovative, exciting places to eat.

Farringdon, London, City, Dinner, Tapas, Spanish, Lifeattheendofafork, French, Small plates, Iberica, Meat

Comptoir Gascon

Comptoir Gascon, the little brother of neighbouring Michelin-starred restaurant Club Gascon, overlooking London’s oldest market, Smithfield, where meat has been bought and sold for over 800 years (and, for our Scottish readership, also the place where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered), Comptoir Gascon serves up cuisine from the Southwest of France.

French, Duck breast, London, Restaurant, Farringdon, Lifeattheendofafork, Food blogger