I almost embarrassed myself. Roussillon – a name which instantly invokes images of wine and warfare – had my mind motoring through elaborate metaphors and playful puns, probably involving Food Snob fighting les Français. It may not sound like much now, but it would have been something grand. Crois moi. This was my first reaction anyway; after all, the namesake London restaurant surely must be titled after the oft-fought-over petite province près les Pyrénées – former Catalan territory, land of vineyards and for centuries subject to the egomaniacal martial chauvinism of the monarchs of Aragon, France, Majorca and the Moors – non? Non!
You have the wrong Roussillon in mind, mes amis! Swap the Counts of Barcelona for the Popes of Avignon, Morue Catalane for Brandade de Morue, replace anchoïde with oursinade, gardiane with bouillabaisse, set your eyes 150 miles due north-east et voila! Where you should be looking is not Languedoc-Roussillon, but Lubéron, wherein little red Roussillon resides – a small village of Provence, birth-province of chef-patron Alexis Gauthier, famous for its tinted ruby-pink hills, rich with ochre and iron oxide deposits.
Embarrassment rolled over into relief; Languedoc-Roussillon natives had once been nicknamed ‘rat eaters’ – not exactly a palatable picture at dinnertime. But just as fast, relief revolved into restlessness as I recalled this ville perchée’s local legend and foodie folklore: there once was a young Lady Sermonde, wife of Raymond d’Avignon, Seigneur du Village, who was neglected by her husband, himself too preoccupied by hunting. Inevitably, the lonely Lady fell in love with another, a young troubadour, Guillaume de Cabestan. Raymond found out and furious, he killed him. In cruel revenge, he also had Willy’s heart served to his wife during dinner. Sermonde, having learned what had happened, threw herself off the close by cliffs, forever colouring the hillside with her blood. But on the bright side, for me at least, eating heart would be nothing new…
Scintillating as this storytelling is, let us refocus on the Pimlico restaurant, Roussillon, thus named by Chef Alexis after acquiring it in 1997 in partnership with Alex and James Palmer (the same entrepreneurs who set up, then sold, the New Covent Garden Soup Company); it had been Marabel’s, but new ownership and opening of MPW’s Mirabelle the same year, prompted the name change.
Though starred by Michelin back in 2000, Roussillon retains a relatively reticent reputation…most of the time. Located on a modest corner of a quiet residential street lined with Georgian terracing, every so often this establishment hits the headlines. It was the first to introduce a ‘garden’ menu dégustation for vegetarians; made the news for its 5-course Flower Menu of petals & floral essences coinciding with the Chelsea Flower Show, its Mini Gastronome menu (free or £15 depending-on-day, bargain 7-course dinner for children) and its 24-course lunch Feast Menu – Alexis’ two-fingered salute to current hurried lunch habits; and caused a stir in 2005 after dropping chicken because of bird flu. However, its biggest claim to fame could be that it was the first restaurant ever reviewed by Giles Coren, back when he was with Tatler.
The man behind all these menus, Alexis Gauthier, is prominent for the provenance of his produce. Much is made of the fact that although a Frenchman, he is an admired advocate of British ingredients; Aberdeen Angus, Scottish blue lobster, English rabbit, Scottish girolles, Kentish rocket, etc. His love of Britain does not end there; he is also a noted fan of its female home-cookery writers, having immersed himself in the works of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Isabella Beeton. Reinforcing these interests though is real skill, honed over the years at Hotellerie School back in Avignon, Chanteclerc (2*) at Hotel Negresco and Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV (3*). Under Ducasse he learnt “there really is nothing magical about cooking,” one must simply use and respect the best, seasonal materials from the local area – a signature of Alexis’ style today. After three years in Monaco, he cooked for the (Levi) Strauss family in San Francisco until meeting the Palmers, his partners-to-be in Roussillon, as well as Priory Bay Hotel, Isle of Wight.
Roussillon’s residence itself, previously a pub built after WWII bombing, is smart, minimal and tasteful. A big bay window stretches nearly the full creamy-yellow front of the building. Once through the door, it is as if entering someone’s home for dinner, one is straightaway within the principal part of the divided dining room; this first half is cinctured by the curved crescent window and matching banquettes, the other, shaped standardly square. Inside it seems smaller than first thought, but intimately, not intimidatingly so with circle and square tables thoughtfully wide apart. These tables are set with starched white linen, underlaid with aubergine cloth that corresponds with the curtains and accompanied by brown banquettes and chairs; the thick carpet is dark bottle green, whilst the walls, cream. Tables themselves are laid simply with clear crystal candle and glassware, two white orchids within a short onyx vase and immaculate Sénat crockery from Limoges-based Philippe Deshoulieres. Additional adornment is limited to inconspicuous plant and herb watercolours with occasional flower arrangements of more orchids and canna lilies. The large latticed frontispiece offers plenty of sunlight during the day, as well as views of St. Barnabus’ church – possibly a personal good omen as he is the patron saint of Cyprus (ma mère patrie). At night, directed downlighters are lit together with the table-top candles, creating a rather romantic mood. The restaurant radiates a strong neighbourhood vibe; it is quietly convivial, unpretentious and welcoming yet civilised, grown-up and serious. There is little to distract diners from the pleasure on their plates and each other – background music is also absent. The staff are seriously attired in smart blue shirts and black suits.
Arriving early, the restaurant was still empty, so I had FOH’s full concentration – excellent. As I awaited my dining companion, I studied the three cartes: ALC, Garden and a 10th Anniversary Menu. Selection proved self-evident; how better to sample the kitchen’s best than through the last ten years’ choicest dishes handpicked by the chef himself? Once H arrived, we negotiated a tweak here, tickle there and we were ready to go…
Amuse Bouche 1: Chickpea Beignets with Mustard; and Canapés of Smoked Eel & Beetroot Purée. Chickpea beignets cut into chip shaped sticks were soft, salty and subtly nutty. The utterly greaseless pois chiche frites were well accompanied by a spicy wholegrain French mustard dip. The canapés were a capable combination of earthy-sweet beetroot and firm, deeply oily eel.
Les Pains: Garlic & Cheese; Black Olive; Tomato & Basil; Cumin; Onion & Bacon; Raison; Wholemeal; and Baguette. The selection here is impressive, equalling even previously untouchable Locanda Locatelli. There was eight breads in total and obviously, I tried each (except the bacon), but as all were decent, I shall only comment on the more notable. The garlic-cheese was nice and strong with a thick vein of parsley within, but because it was not warm, the cheese had cooled and become chewy. Aromatic, Asian accented cumin was interestingly piquant. My favourites, however, were the raison roll – soft, moist and filled with grapey grenades; olive bun, which had lively taste and crumbly middle; and spongy tomato-basil twist with its classic combo of sweet freshness and parity to pizza. Smooth salted and unsalted butter from Normandy partnered these. There was one complaint, already hinted at, and that was the lack of warmth – not once was I served a hot crumb.
Amuse Bouche 2: Chilled Sorrel & Chervil Velouté. A bright moss green nage frais of sorrel and chervil, garnished with parsley leaf, covered a cache of white Devon crab meat crowned with Aquitaine caviar. The soup had good consistency: grainy, thick and interspersed with supple crab chunks. The flavours, however, were too mild. The naturally subtle sorrel, chervil and stronger parsley seemed to have lost their individual identities, leaving the potage tasting fresh and green, but indistinct. Additionally, the caviar, which was expected to release bold briny bursts, instead was specially submissive and quiet.
Entrée 1: The Priory Bay Umami Egg. Substituted onto our menu at my behest, this promised power and punch. A serving of scrambled eggs, mixed with chopped shallots, garlic and capers, came drizzled in lemon and light soy sauce and adorned with shards of wild seaweed (the eggs, garlic and seaweed are sourced by the chef from his Isle of Wight venture). Pungent capers; strong garlic; sour lemon; onion-like shallots: none of these were tasted. Umami, sometimes described as meaty or savoury, is the fifth flavour and is thought to give food more intensity; it is found in, for example, cheese, edamame, duck, beef, anchovies and soy sauce. This snippet of information must have caused the chef to lose all sense of relative measure as a sea of soy, doused over the dish probably last minute, seemed to form a solid saline shield over its contents, making each mouthful one of intense saltiness. It was almost inedible, made just about comestible after energetic stirring and an adamant necessity to clean one’s plate, instilled in early childhood by mother.
Entrée 2: Warm Blue Lobster Salad. A pretty plate of rich carmine-coloured blue lobster’s carved tail and claw covered in coral and girolle dressing came accompanied by balsamic reduction and a small green salad of frisée, Swiss chard and lettuce. The rare crustacean, not warm, was shamefully bland and doubly disappointing as the blue variety is supposed to be more succulent than the regular red. In contrast, the sautéed Scottish mushrooms and coral (FYI unfertilised lobster eggs/roe) delivered a very welcome spicy kick, though again without much likeness to lobster. The peppery, slightly bitter salad would have been a nice counterpoint for the sweet Scottish shellfish, had it had savour.
Entrée 3: Black Truffle Risotto. Hot, creamy, parmesan-packed risotto, laced with warm beurre noisette, was swathed in the most munificent measure of precious, intoxicating black truffle. The rice had achieved the fabled all’onda disposition and the fragrant fungi, lusciously forceful, together with the parmegiano cheese and hazel-browned butter, gave the dish tremendous depth and nutty richness. Anything that had not been up to snuff prior to this was instantly forgiven then forgotten. Please Sir, can I have some more? Wow!
Entrée 4: Lightly battered calf’s sweetbread. A simple serving of breadcrumb-cased tempura sweetbreads arrived strewn with more sautéed Scottish girolles and splashes of veal jus. The glistening, golden nuggets of calf gland were moist, juicy and succulent, which was a great relief as their battered and deep-fried design was almost a turnoff. The mushrooms, having sated themselves with the rich veal jus, were pleasurably plump; their inherent earthy and faint fruitiness marrying with the natural meaty sweetness of the sweetbread very well. That said, the breadcrumbs were still deemed de trop.
Plat Principal 1: Loin & Belly of Monkfish. The monkfish came in two parts: the loin, cooked in brown butter with confit tomato-aubergine purée and pickled lemon chunks; and the belly, in a fish and pepper broth with sultanas and lemon balm. I was instructed to start with the loin, allowing the belly to continue cooking in the broth. The first marvellous monkfish morsel, with firm, white flesh and nutty finish, was set atop an earthy eggplant-tomato confit bed. The aubergine mash, sponge-like, had soaked up the saccharine tomato and strong salty-sour lemon juices to leave it exploding with flavour; the robust fish stood up nicely to this. Zesty, sharp bisque held the bit of belly. The lemon balm, minty and fresh, complemented the mildly sweet monkfish as did the fruity sultanas. Though decent, the belly portion was a nearly forgotten footnote to the lovely loin.
Plat Principal 2: Anjou Squab Pigeon in a Pot. A mouth-watering whole Anjou squab was presented within its cooking pot complete with dark green Savoy cabbage, golden parsnip root, baby onion bulbs and sautéed mixed mushrooms. The bird was then taken away and we were each rationed a brink pink breast and darker braised leg with vegetables. The pigeon, slowly prepared in the pastry-sealed vessel, was pretty much perfect; moist, earthy, gamey and retaining its delicate, tender texture. The cabbage was crisp and mellow; the parsnip and onions, crunchy and sweet; while the mushroom mélange – chanterelles, morels, cepes, girolles – added a nice nutlike, smoky meatiness.
Plat Principal 3: Roast Loin of Red Deer & Poached Williams Pear. Two thin pink slices of venison were accompanied by pumpkin triangle, half red-wine-poached pear, Savoy cabbage leaf, celeriac-truffle purée and once more, an indiscriminate grating of pungent black truffles; the dish was finished with a drizzle of jus roti. The deer was dearly disappointing: it seemed that the carved meat had been left under the pass a little long (probably whilst waiting on the vegetables, which did come piping hot) and its edges had begun to darken and dry. However, the chef’s gift for the green stuff saved this course. The cabbage was crisp and juicy; the caramelised pumpkin provided honey-nuttiness and grainy texture; the cinnamon, winy pear was refreshing and full-on; and the subtle celeriac, earthy and clean was a perfect foil for the strong, tasty truffle. The creamy, silky mash was a real highlight and surprisingly, made without butter, only olive oil.
Pre-Dessert: Lime & Elderflower Givré. A pristine white, smooth sorbet of lime and elderflower was floral, citrusy and distinct. It was served upon a frozen, sour lime half and embedded with brittle isomalt tuile – a lower calorie, sugar substitute which has little impact on blood sugar and does not promote tooth decay: how very considerate of the kitchen.
Dessert 1: Spicy soufflé of Organic Duck Egg. A clear twist on classic egg and soldiers: a duck egg, filled with airy spicy, soufflé was partnered by rich maple infusion and warm gingerbread finger. Although I am not a big ginger fan, the sugar-dusted sponge brick was soft, moist and lovely, working well with the velvety maple syrup. The soufflé itself was a little masterpiece: seasoned with a heady fusion of fennel seed, aniseed, pepper, clove and cinnamon (similar blend to Chinese 5 spice), the feather light, fluffy and trembling treat delivered sweet-liquorice-like piquancy. This was an impressive, witty and palatable little pleasure.
Dessert 2: Louis XV. This is a signature Ducasse dessert at Monaco’s Louis XV; luckily for us though, Roussillon’s head chef, Gerard Virolle, spent a year in the pastry section there. The recipe at both remains the same: a fine hazelnut praline, over thin biscuit base, sandwiched between chocolate ganache and covered in dark chocolate sauce; this almost liquid layer is embellished with gold leaf. Here, this classy croustillant is circular, rather than Monaco’s rectangular rendition; but this is probably the sole difference, as even the same St Etienne Weiss French chocolate is used for both. Taste-wise it is good indeed, combining indulgent, bitter chocolate with clean finish and crumbly praline with pleasing crunch.
Café et Petit Fours: Chocolate Truffle; Elderflower Marshmallow; Financier; and Almond, Raison & Honey Cake. Espresso was enjoyable as were each of the petit fours: marshmallow was delicate and flowery; truffle, solid; cake, honeyed and soft, like a Bakewell tart minus the jam; and excellent almond financier, hot and moist. Together with the coffee came white and brown sugar swizzle sticks, bought in from Fortnum & Mason’s, which this intrepid reviewer mistook for more sweeties!
Three amuses bouches, four entrées, three mains, two desserts, coffee, petit fours, a frightening number of bread rolls and five hours later and dinner was done. All in all, it was a good meal with my dining experience boosted by skilled service and charming company. However, one problem and rather overriding theme of the cooking was the consistency, or rather lack of it: dishes ranged from forgettable to decent and from memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons to wow. Specifically, the cowboy-like dispensing of soy sauce over my Umami egg is difficult to disregard, but just as hard to ignore was the luxury of that black truffle risotto – in the word’s of little Eddie Rayner (son of Jay …), ‘I want to eat this all the time’ – and utter preciousness of the egg-and-soldier dessert. Another inconsistency was the attention to detail. Some very fine first-round appetisers and so thoughtful a selection of breads gave the impression that after such time and effort went into the trimmings, the main show would be consummate. It was not. However, though not faultless, there are definite flashes of true talent from the kitchen. Another pleasing point is the chef’s obvious indifference to indulgent experimentation, presentation without pith and getting caught up in the latest thing – note the lack of foams, mousses, gelées, etc – instead effort goes into combining fine flavours, tastes and textures i.e. getting the food right. The kitchen is not trying to show off, as demonstrated by plate after plate of clean yet carefully crafted, honest yet sophisticated presentation.
Service merited singular mention. After some initial frostiness over the telephone (something highlighted by other reviews too), I was a little concerned. However, on arrival, these concerns proved themselves tenuous. The staff were all very polite, very formal, very attentive – water, butter and bread always promptly delivered generally without explicit request – and though not necessarily blatantly friendly from the off, over the course of the meal, they relaxed, becoming quite hospitable. Our serveuse, a young Italian lady, ought to be mentioned just for her unending patience, whilst one of the young sommeliers came over as especially keen and interested, standing with us outside the restaurant after the meal to discuss our opinions further.
In a pathetic attempt to assuage recent harsh criticisms about my lack of attention to beverages, let me mention the scandalous wine list – scandalously good value that is! And enough about that.
Roussillon has a lot going in its favour and were there to be more uniformity in the quality of dishes, this restaurant could take itself to the next level (I leave ‘next level’s’ location intentionally ambiguous). I would myself return, as I am interested in trying Chef Alexis’ more adventurous, creative cartes, such as the decadent Feast or fascinating Flower Menu – green chlorophyll risotto anyone?
16 St Barnabas Street, Pimlico, SW1W 8PE
tel: 020 7730 5550
nearest tube: Sloane Square