Harden's survey result
Yikes! – “Things have not improved under Sir Terence Conran’s new ownership”, at this large venue, just off Trafalgar Square, which nowadays combines an upstairs restaurant with ground floor ‘café, bistro, épicerie and cave à vin’. OK, some reports do applaud its “very passable” Gallic fare, but the consensus is “don’t bother” – it’s “all a bit limited and lacking in ambience” with food that’s “just factory catering”.
Les Deux Salons WC2
From the Arbutus team, a grandly recreated Gallic brasserie, a couple of minutes walk from Charing Cross; a day-one visit revealed it to be a quality operation - indeed, its 'offer' would arguably be better if it were rather less ambitious.
The popular team behind Arbutus and Wild Honey - who've stormed the capital in the last few years with their brand of gutsy dishes at reasonable prices - are responsible for this Covent Garden newcomer. This new two-floor site - once a 'Pitcher & Piano' - is massively larger than either of the other ventures. They have spent a lot of money to create a Central Casting-perfect Gallic brasserie, of the type that needs scuffing up, to give the impression that it's been there for 100 years, rather than - as when we visited - 100 minutes.
As we are faces familiar to the management, we were inevitably glad-handed as the occasion demanded, yet it became clear our lack of anonymity would make no difference where service was concerned. Legions of charming, smartly dressed waiters and waitresses hopped from foot to foot or milled about in a scene of well-meaning chaos. At least we knew it was 50% off the food in the early days, so we were going to have to be kind about any longeurs (of which there were many).
Our meal got off to a cracking start with a Herefordshire snail and bacon pie of a type that made you nostalgic for the childhood most people never had in that bit of border country. A guest, however, was not blown away by his Autumn wild mushrooms and Clarence Court poached egg on toast. (Do the sort of eggs you can buy in Waitrose really need a name check?)
Fast forward 40 minutes, and the mains arrive: Lapin Ã la moutarde, and Elwy Valley lamb from the Josper Charcoal Grill. (Enough information already!) The rabbit, unfortunately, was rather like the snail and bacon pie, but creamy to excess, and so comfortingly authentic. The lamb, though, was slightly chewy and not particularly well-seasoned. A pudding of Pain perdu with Cox apples was fine, without being memorable. Coffee was excellent (as was the bread we'd enjoyed at the start of the meal).
Serving classic gutsy traditional fare within a few short steps of Terroirs invites comparisons, not initially at least entirely favourable. And though the menu here is long, wide-ranging and with a few cheaper soups and terrines, it's all - at least in our humble opinion - a bit overwrought for a brasserie, with few plain and simple (and truly inexpensive) options. OÃ¹ sont les steak/frites d'antan? The wine list is also well behind the more established operation.
These are not necessarily fatal concerns. The place - with its antiqued mirrors, shining rails, mosaic floor and very well-spaced tables (for the time being) feels great, and the service is clearly entirely well-meaning And, as we know only too well, this part of the West End is still devoid of too many choices. This is a comfortable, quality venue, which - once the teething problems are sorted out - could well become a Theatreland classic.
40-42 William IV Street, London, WC2N 4DD
Mon - Sat 11.30 am - 12.30 am
Last orders: Mon & Tue 10.45 pm; Wed - Sat 11.15 pm