The menu here, although characteristic of the rich and hearty cuisine of Gascony, features classic dishes interlaced with modern and exotic twists, for example, confit of organic salmon, violet tea & citrus chutney and asparagus coulis, eucalyptus jelly & baby lobster. Furthermore, it is difficult to find a review not written in overwhelming praise; the inventiveness and skill of Pascal Aussignac (previously of Guy Savoy and Carré des Feuillants) is lauded and the foie gras dishes branded the best London has to offer.
Having eagerly made reservations a few days prior, I arrived promptly at seven, salivating in anticipation of what was to follow; expectations were high. The ‘receptionist’ greeted me warmly and showed me to my table. The restaurant was deserted, but it was still early. Soon K and D, two friends who would be joining me, arrived and our charming serveuse handed around menus, explaining how one was to order; reports of the notoriously ‘chaotic’ and ‘complicated’ menu proved, in my opinion, unfounded. The dishes, broken down into five categories, la route de sel, le potager, l’oceane, les foies gras and les pasturages, are served tapas style and generally become heavier as you move down through the sections. Three dishes each were suggested as sufficient.
Such a wide selection meant it took a while to ‘mutually’ decide on what to order. I quickly found my initial (selfish) joy at being able to try more dishes dining as a group replaced by the sour disappointment of how much our tastes diverged e.g. one friend is not fond of game and another, apparently, cannot mix red meat and white during the same dinner. Once dishes were finally agreed upon, I was somewhat miffed: one dish I had had my eye on since initial inspection of the menu, glazed black cod, lillet & coconut, smoked salt, was chosen by BOTH friends: I did not mind so much that someone else had ordered ‘my’ dish, but why break that cardinal rule and order the same dish twice? I realise full well that it is a little pathetic, but I cannot help it, I have my ‘principles’ (chronic OCD sufferer) and I was not happy. Whatever! Needless to say, I tried to be as obliging as possible so that we might all share freely.
During the well earned rest that followed ordering, I asked about photographing the food, but was informed, after that the chef, would be appreciated it if I refrained from this. Quelle deception!
It took the arrival of the bread basket, offering a selection of cereal, raison and fennel, rye or white baguette, to raise my spirits. I like bread, but I adore hot bread and at CG, it is baked on site and served piping hot. I tried each variety, of course, and found rye a clear winner.
An amuse bouche of eucalyptus granité, melon and salsify followed; this did not really work for me and was instantly forgettable. Our starters looked good, were interestingly presented and the portions were of standard starter size, except for my generous duck carpaccio, spring truffle & crispy artichoke. Unfortunately, this looked better than it tasted; the flavour was distinctive and the idea of carpaccio of duck was new to me, so though I am glad I tried it, I would not order it again. Additionally, the artichoke came sliced in the form of large ‘crisps’, which I did not at all care for. My companions did not seem especially impressed either. After sampling each other’s dishes, K decided the texture of her abalone & razor clams fricassee, velvety parsnip & seaweed tartare was rather putting her off, thus setting in motion a mini merry-go-round that ended with K having D’s aligot, juicy mousserons & wild garlic, D my duck and me the abalone and razor clams, well, just razor clams (K had already eaten the single small abalone morsel). I was pleased with this result; the fat clams were delightful, whilst the consistency of the aligot was, in my opinion, a little ‘plastic’, though the juicy mousserons floating within were indeed moreish.
Next came embers grilled artichokes, barigoule & diablo sauce for K and two foie gras dishes, ouzo foie gras delight and pressed duck foie gras, king crab & hot tomato jus for D and me, respectively. This time, I thought the portions were relatively stingy. The barigoule consisted of three mini artichoke heads; the ouzo delight was a small brick of pâté, similar sized brioche slice and dice-sized cube of ouzo jelly; and the foie gras and crab comprised small slivers of terrine and four scrawny crab claws (the absence of actual crab meat on them suggests they were there just for decoration). Further, it came on a craggy stone slab, inhibiting me from safely pouring out the tomato sauce (initially incorrectly served with K’s dish). Taste-wise, I found the barigoule quite bland and maybe a little overcooked, the foies gras were both smooth and flavoursome, but the combinations on either dish did not thrill me. Actually, this is not a fair comment as the lack of crab and impracticality of the tomato mix meant I was left with a serving of ‘straight’ foie gras. The ouzo jelly was the star of this course.
With the final course due, I was dissatisfied and desperate for things to improve. And they did, a little. The black cod, served differently to reviews, came in a bowl with the fish immersed in a white froth. My seared loin veal, sea urchin jus, milla fritter looked nice, if again not plentiful; a couple of slices of pink meat with some milla fritters (these turned out to be basic and boring potato croquettes). The veal was overcooked for me, preferring it to melt in my mouth; the fritters were dull; and the powerful, sharp sea urchin jus did not successfully link the dish’s flavours together. Nevertheless, I would not describe the dish as bad, just lacklustre. The cod was the meal’s highlight for both K and D; I was unable to try the fish together with the dish’s supporting ingredients, but the scraps I did sample, though I have had better elsewhere, were well cooked.
A pre-dessert/palate cleanser of rhubarb sorbet, balsamic vinegar and celery followed. This was the most pleasant surprise of the meal with the diverse and distinct flavours delivering a cool sharp zing.
Dessert, my favourite course, was still to come. We ordered the choco bar, red hot chilli berries and white chocolate boule, lime & pineapple. By this stage, the restaurant had indeed filled out with a well-dressed crowd of young professionals – not surprising given the proximity to the City – and this crowd was probably why we had to wait so long for desserts. Uncomfortably long. When they finally arrived, they were, as pudding ought to be, a feast for the eyes. The boule, an egg of white chocolate, came with a warm pineapple jus served à la Ducasse that melted the head of the egg revealing the precious, sweet and acidic lime and pineapple within. It was a nice combination. The choco bar, a chocolate sponge served with coffee ice cream and dark chocolate syrup, though decent, lacked that one characteristic essential to all good, especially good chocolate, desserts – indulgence. Puddings should be guilty pleasures, naughty extravagances and this sponge was wanting of any real depth or luxury. The red hot chilli berries looked most impressive; a raspberry millefeuille with a raspberry sorbet, still within the ladle, and, I think, red pepper gel alongside. The raspberries were amazingly fresh; this is unfortunately the best I have to say about this dish. The sorbet was refreshing, but spoilt by a few hard lumps of ice and the gel was devoid of any genuine punch, which was what I was looking for from RED HOT CHILLI berries.
I would rather not mention the petit fours – one chocolate dusted almond each and some chocolate raisons – but I have, for the record of course (:P).
Overall, the food was not actually bad, but it was not great, not good, just decent and failed to justify its hefty price (£227.00 for three, including service and a £42.00 bottle of wine). The service was decent and contrary to what I have read, polite and friendly, if at times a little sloppy and inefficient (dropping of cutlery, wrong dishes to wrong diner, requested butter not delivered) and deteriorated as the night wore on. One personal annoyance was that the waiter explaining our dishes mumbled every description in a barely audible whisper. Further, though I did not see the wine list myself, I was told there was a dearth of more reasonably priced wines. I was also let down by the absence of many of what I thought were signature dishes e.g. foie gras ice cream, foie gras popcorn, duck confit, smoked eel croustillant and (amazing) frites (I know what you are thinking – stop reading so many reviews!).
The experience fell way short of what I wanted and what I expected from this Michelin starred restaurant, but in writing this critique, I may have been severe. Many of those glowing reviews that elevated my hopes so high were indeed a little old, so maybe the kitchen is becoming complacent or maybe it was just a bad night…another dish, another day, things could have been different. There were other dishes I would have liked to sample and considering that the menu is updated monthly and ordering le marche (four course set menu for £42.00) is pretty good value, I do believe I would consider returning. After all, everyone deserves a second chance.
57 West Smithfield, London, EC1A 9DS
tel: 020 7796 0600
nearest tube: Barbican, Farringdon