Review: Le Cafe Anglais

(by peter)

Our first encounter with Le Café Anglais, chef Rowley Leigh’s latest culinary adventure, was a short while ago, not long after it opened.

It was a birthday dinner (mine, I think), the kind of occasion we tend to savour because it’s a brilliant excuse for a great night out.

Only problem was, we left distinctly under-whelmed. The food was good – but not really good enough. The ingredients were simple and very tasty, but it just seemed to lack the wow factor that the reviews, the prices and the fab Art Deco décor had led us to expect.

So when we received an invitation to go back for a friend’s very glamorous retirement celebration, we relished the prospect of seeing whether our first impressions would be confirmed or challenged.

We were among distinguished company. Some of the UK’s finest food and wine press were in attendance – I sat next to a very knowledgeable and eminent British food writer, who described Leigh’s cooking as mercurial: sometimes brilliant, sometimes under par, and you never quite know what you’re going to get, even with his signature dishes.

The evening opened with Tarlant Brut Zero NV Champagne (£28) – quite challenging in its dryness, maybe better as a food wine, with a pleasantly rustic appley character – sipped while still-polite chatter buzzed around our group.

(I should mention at this stage that the retiree – the quite brilliant Vivienne Jawett – worked for M&S, which is why all wines served at the event were supplied by, and are available from, M&S.)

We moved through to our private dining room (incidentally, a great venue for anyone looking to have a party – though I suspect the cost may be considerable). As we did so, we passed the open-plan kitchen, and Leigh duly dispensed some light-hearted bonhomie in our direction.

One of our group was jokingly rude about the hors d’oeuvres being plated up for us. Leigh responded in bullish fashion. That’s his manner, apparently.

We sat down to a glass of the pungent, vibrantly structured, altogether delicious Cartagena Tres Viñedos Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (£9.99) from San Antonio in Chile. This collaboration between M&S and Mariluz Marin of Casa Marin is a real gem: full of pea pod and grapefruit character, with that food-friendly structure and real depth so typical of San Antonio’s top Sauvignon Blancs.

It also did a very creditable job of pairing with some very varied hors d’oeuvres – something Sauvignon often does very well, yet gets little credit for.

The mini starters included a grilled and marinated aubergines (style “Imam Biyaldi”, apparently), scallop sashimi (served with soy sauce and some with smoked salmon and wasabi), quails’ eggs with duxelles and hollandaise on pastry boats, and one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, parmesan custard with anchovy toasts.

I thought the quails’ eggs were sensational: cooked to gooey perfection, with beautiful hollandaise and duxelles. A divine mouthful.

The parmesan custard was rich and elicited a predictable endorphin rush from both Susie and me. Where we differed was over the anchovy toasts: I thought the strong anchovy flavour didn’t quite gel completely with the other flavours (salt and umami overload); Susie adored it.

Each to their own.

I thought the scallops were a little on the insipid side; the combination with wasabi and salmon worked OK but it wasn’t a particularly memorable flavour or texture experience.

The next course featured a rich crab risotto, full of flavour and meaty density. Crunchy, succulent: heavenly. Especially when paired with the outstanding Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Chalumeaux 2007, Jean Pascal (£35).

What a flavour combination. The rich earthy fishiness and rich texture of the risotto together with the dense, nutty, lemony white – spine tingling stuff. This white is a fantastic buy even at that price, and is drinking superbly. If you need a posh drop for Easter, look no further.

The gigot braisé sept heures with haricot bean purée was essentially a bowl of broth and meat, quite rustic French style, but very good all the same. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth, the carrots crunchy, the bean purée…well, like bean purée really. The lovely texture of the meat notwithstanding, it veered back into the “simple but unexceptional” territory of our previous experience. But it sat very well in this meal.

Its wine partner, Brunello di Montalcino 2003, Villa dei Lecci, was similarly decent if not outstanding. We later had an insider tip that it may be better to wait for the altogether superior 2004 vintage.

A patriotic and very tasty range of English cheeses duly followed, together with a suitable match of 20-year-old tawny port (£29.99). And then a triumph of a pudding: panna cotta with rhubarb, which quite eclipsed the poor Oudinot Demi-Sec NV Champagne with which it was served.

When pudding is that good, wine rarely gets a look-in, however good it is. (Especially in Susie’s case.)

Maybe we got lucky, and Leigh’s kitchen was firing on all cylinders. Maybe they pulled out all the stops for Viv. Either way, this was an impressive showing from Le Café Anglais.

We’ll just have to go back for a third time and make it the deciding vote.

Le Café Anglais: 8/10 (subject to review)