‘Brasseries are the Can Can. For sure, this is not a place for refined haute cuisine and three course meals. [It] is a place for relaxed enjoyment…offer[ing] you simple, high quality food…The real origins of French brasseries are lost in time and probably in several litres of beer but nowadays in France they are the bastions of good eating and drinking, locally and informally.’
I (grossly) paraphrase here one Frenchman, perhaps presently more famous among the general public than ever before. Who else followed BBC2’s The Restaurant? Exactement, I refer to Raymond Blanc, whose show has recently concluded rather conveniently – lucky that – just in time to allow Monsieur Blanc to set off on a promotional tour for his new book, in addition to picking up an OBE from her Majesty for the ‘proud’ work he has done for ‘British palates.’
OK, let us forget about Raymond for a moment and refocus on brasseries. This week I decided to lunch at Le Bouchon Breton, the new Spitalfields restaurant, set up by Nicolas Laridan, Francois Betrand and Ian Stoppani; the first was head chef at Le Gavroche, the second, its chef-sommelier and the third, a former-stockbroker-now-restaurateur (It seems like last week’s memorable meal at Le Gavroche is still eating away at my subconscious). Oh, did I mention that Michel Roux Jr. is the consultant behind this venture? Well, he is.
After a two year search for a suitable site, Le Bouchon Breton only opened on 8 October within Old Spitalfields Market, but is already referred to as la grande soeur of Battersea’s Le Bouchon Bordelais. Stoppani, who owns both, is certain that Le Bouchon Breton will ‘make an instant impact’; he can take comfort then that it has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air among the market’s current franchise-dominated hoi polloi. Although this is an ambitious project – riding on the brasserie/bistro boom, revived first by the Wolseley and bolstered by the likes of Rowley Leigh’s Café Anglais – it is also a serious one indeed; with a FOH-kitchen team sourced from one of Britain’s best restaurants, plus a 700 bin wine-list, it clearly means business.
Le Bouchon Breton is a labour of love for Chef Nicolas. Born and bred in Paris, he literally grew up in brasseries as his mother owned several around the city. Therefore, he knew from a very young age what he wanted to do with his life and at tender fourteen he enrolled at Lycée Hôtelier Belliard. His education continued with a two-year apprenticeship at Le Relais des Buttes whilst he studied for a Diploma CAP, which he passed with flying colours before six more months at Le Relais as commis chef. He then worked at the Concorde Hotel as commis then demi chef de partie, prior to a move to London in 1993. First joining the Roux family as a commis at Gavvers, Chef Nicolas has remained with them ever since; proving himself there, Le Poulbot, House of Albert Roux (rising from chef de partie to head chef in three years); Café Roux in Amsterdam’s Grand Hotel; until finally earning a part in the big show – Le Gavroche – in 1998. Within two years he had replaced Brian Maule as head chef and held that honour for seven more before leaving last March, with Michel’s blessing. After recharging his batteries, he spent time at Le Bouchon Bordelais, helping out there, before reconnoitring Paris’ brasseries to prepare and plan Breton’s own opening.
Found on the first floor terrace above Spitalfields Market within its renovated, covered part off Commercial Street, it is accessible solely via a small, easily-missable staircase near La Tasco and actually sits atop Gourmet Burger Kitchen. In terms of attracting passing trade, it is dire, but on the bright side, at least it enjoys a nice view and plenty of space to play with: there is capacity for 320 – 160 sitting, 40 at the bar and 120 on the terrace itself. Stepping within, an interior inspired by grand old Parisian intuitions including La Coupole, Le Train Bleu, Lipp and Bofinger, boasts authentic brasserie detailing embellished with belle époque touches, such as the fifteen metre zinc bar serving champagne and seafood that greets entering customers; the black-and-cream chessboard floor beneath their feet; and Thonet bentwood chairs or high-backed, deep banquettes, both upholstered with bright burgundy leather that they will sit upon. The drinker’s half of the restaurant features the bar, an open wine cabinet and couches encircling an open space dotted with drinking podiums. The diner’s division is also ringed with banquettes and filled with tables, double-draped in thick, white linen, between ivory columns. Tabletops are laid with heavy, silver cutlery and pretty Pillvyut porcelain. Colourful cyclamen add to the decoration as do large mirrors, hanging globe lights and exposed iron girders. Staff are in customary costume of black waistcoats and trousers with white smocks. Background music was easy-listening, but I would have preferred something more suitable (maybe a little Edith?). There is a nice busy buzz and bustle, but it is not forbiddingly noisy.
The art-deco menu is just as authentic as the décor: it is two-sided, long, filled with traditional classics and a hand-written carte du jour. I want to try as many options as possible, both the so stereotypically French stuff – escargots, cuisses de grenouille – and dishes that would showcase the chef’s talent better too. Arnauld, managing the FOH today came over to take my order. I obviously was not ready and asked whether I could put together my own menu degustation. He had to talk to the kitchen. Moments later Chef Nicolas came out. He was delighted with my idea and we proceeded to put together something. I was impressed with the consideration and interest he was willing to show me; youthful, energetic, enthusiastic, he was like a breath of fresh air and obviously excited to be running, what he described, as, ‘my baby’. We had a good conversation during which he allowed me to gently grill him. I learnt that he was enjoying going back to what he knows and loves – la brasserie: ‘I was a kid washing glasses behind the counter’ he recounted. As he was leaving, I apologised and thanked him for the trouble I was putting him through. He turned around and, patting his belly, empathised, ‘please, I am a foodie too.’
Amuse Bouche 1: Berry Mousse. An unanticipated, but appreciated ‘leettle somethang ah made wit the mise en place I ‘ad leftover at the bahr’ was served by Arnauld (obviously speaking with his French accent there), as I retook my seat. This rosy, foamy fruit infusion – tangy blackberry, sweet strawberry, intense raspberry and distinct mango jazzed up with the acidity of apple juice and squeeze of lemon – was light, frothy-fresh and smooth.
Les Pains: French Baguette. True to brasserie tradition, there was no bread selection, with only the de rigeur French baguette brought out. Initially cold, I could not resist asking if it could be warmed; this was not a problem. The baguettes belong to Boulanger Francais and are decent; a crusty edge enclosing soft, fluffy middle that did its mopping metier well. The unsalted butter is very good and is from Premier Fromage, who run La Cave à Fromage and supply, among others, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Tom Aikens.
Amuse Bouche 2: Oriental Beef Salad. Roasted rare slices of sirloin, sprinkled with soy sauce, sesame oil and green Tobasco were garnished with sakura cress, spring onion and parmesan shavings. This was Laridan letting loose and indulging a more creative side; and to good effect. In this two-fingered salute to sissy soups and cream-puff canapés, burly beef, soy and parmesan dealt a refreshing spank of savoury umami. The tender meat had rich flavour; the cheese, creamy depth; sakura cress, similar to radish sprouts, had peppery spice; onion, crunch; and salty, nutty dressing, a chilli heat that warmed rather than burned.
Entrée 1: La Soupe à l’Oignon. Traditional French Onion Soup with Cider, Croutons and Emmental Cheese. Cidre Breton, beef stock and oodles of onion, smelted until sweet and only just still solid, bubbled beneath a crust of croutons and Emmental, grilled to reveal the full charry colour spectrum. The soup released the uncomplicated yet deep scent of onion. A short incision in the cheesy concretion disclosed a savoury-sweet, full-flavoured brew, which though not thick, had good body. The fruity sweetness of both the sparkling cider and Emmental enhanced the flavour of the caramelised bulbs. This was a very good example of a classic; hot, satisfying and simple.
Entrée 2: Les 6 Escargots de Bourgogne. Six Snails with Garlic Butter. A senary of snails, stuffed with butter, chopped parsley, diced shallots and a drop of pernod, came overn-baked. Each Burgundian sextuplet had been buttered just enough so that a little leaked out into the exclusive indentation it inhabited upon the tray, without being oily. Their taste, almost indescribable – though I will try – came through very well; rich, earthy, like caramelised soil (in a good way) with a unique, firm yet elastic texture. The garlic-shallot-parsley-pernod potpourri, a long-established partner to l’escargot was herby-sweet with the subtle suggestion of aniseed (from the pernod – made with star anise – and parsley). Greedily sopping up the gastropods’ juices with the warm baguette was a treat.
Entrée 3: Friture de Cuisses de Grenouille et Sauce Tartare. Frog’s Legs Fritters with Tartare Sauce. A tempura trio of frog’s legs arrived with a little tub of tartare and onion rings encircling fried parsley. The flavour of frog-meat is oft compared to young chicken, however, these had gentle gaminess, subtly suggestive of rabbit and reminiscent of ma grand-mère’s traditional Turkish Cypriot dish lalangi – basically wild rabbit beignets. The accompanying chunky, grainy sauce was very good with piquant capers and sharp lemon. Crisp, super-thin onion rings were well-fried and parsley, grassy and earthy, a nice touch, tallying with the tartare’s dill.
It was at this point, that Chef Nicolas decided I deserved a little intermission in my ingestion and generously offered me a peek behind the scenes, which I duly accepted. I was able to say hello to several of the staff, all of whom were cheerful and friendly. It seems there are even more relations of the Roux family back there, including sous chef, Vikram, who came from Brasserie Roux at the Sofitel.
Plat Principal 1: Steak Tartare Facon Francaise. Raw Chopped Fillet of Beef with Capers, Gherkins, Parsley, Onion, Fresh Egg Yolk, Mustard and Spiced to your liking. I returned to find one serveur, Kevin, ready to prepare my steak tartare à la table. First, whisking raw egg yolk with salt, black pepper and Dijon mustard, he then added olive oil, capers, gherkin, garlic, parsley and ketchup, before the beef. After inquiring whether I liked it hot (oui, Kevin, je fais!), he finished the preparation with Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, shaping and serving the tartare scattered with parsley and a bowl of skinny frites. It was delicious. The inspired use of chopped fillet instead of mince made all the difference; each mouthful of flavourful meat melted on the tongue yet still had a lovely firm thickness to it. Additionally, the occasional crunch of onion and gherkin; heat from the mustard and Tabasco coming through; and egg gelling everything together, all worked excellently. The pommes too merit their mention, being proper steak frites, done properly.
Plat Principal 2: La Marmite Bretonne. Mixed Fish and Shellfish in a Lobster Bouillon. Before me was presented a marmite (literally, cooking pot) brimming with sundry seafood – sole, gurnard, gilthead bream, mussel, palourde and almond clams, tiger prawn, oyster and lobster tail (now there’s a mouthful) – all poached in lobster stock with Charlotte potato, carrot and button mushrooms; garnished with celery and flat parsley leaf. A lovely oceanic odour oozed from the stew, which itself had tremendous richness from the sweet lobster and left a pleasing after-burn on the back of the throat long after the pot had been emptied. All the elements were well-cooked; simple poaching allowing their true flavours to burst through. The softly mineral oyster with its uniquely chewy flesh; sweeter gurnard; succulent sole; and perfectly cooked prawn stood out, with the vegetables symbolic of the bucolic side of Brittany. I must also boast about the lobster tail that was loaded with intense, precious coral.
Plat Principal 3: Faisan Roti et Risotto de Truffe. Roasted Pheasant and Autumn Truffle Risotto. An off-menu special of roasted pheasant thigh and wing, sitting atop truffle risotto with wilted gem lettuce in Madeira jus, was served with a tableside grating of more truffle. The fresh Umbrian autumn tuber was redolent with musky earthiness and, from the first tentative taste of rice, I was knocked back by the surprising strength and generous glut of infused fungi. The meaty pheasant, plump and juicy, was perfectly cooked with pinkish flesh under crispy skin whilst the dark gravy, of jus roti and Madeira, was robust, sweet and concentrated. A deeply satisfying dish.
Dessert 1: Tarte Tatin Glace Vanille et Sauce Caramel. Upside Down Caramel Baked Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice cream. Upon very pretty, deep-pan puff pastry stacked with slices of succulent apple, sat a scoop of vanilla seed-sated ice cream, all soused in salty caramel sauce and spiked with basil leaf. ‘Tis the season for apple picking, thus these tender, seriously sweet Golden Delicious made for a very appetising treat. Their crisp pastry package, made with a hint of salt, had soaked up the thick caramel, hot apple juice and melted ice cream to superb effect.
Dessert 2: Tarte au Chocolat, Crème Anglaise. Chocolate tart with vanilla custard. Wanting to finish on a coco note, I opted for the dessert from off the menu du jour: 61% Valrhona extra bitter chocolate tartufi encased in soft, dense pastry crust lay atop criss-crossings of thick choc sauce and light vanilla crème Anglaise. The tart itself was well made with solid mousse filling that had strong, deep taste, but good balance. Its accompanying sauces provided some useful moisture with the vanilla flavour coming through well.
Café: Espresso. A nice, strong espresso was required to help me back to my feet after this long meal…
The food here pressed all the right buttons. Le Bouchon Breton really does what it says on the tin, plus more. This is possibly as authentic a brasserie as you will find in London, with a dedicated chef who knows what he is doing with traditional recipes and great ingredients. Chef Nicolas has called on the contacts he made at Le Gavroche to offer some high quality produce: beef, for instance, is a cross of Scottish Black Angus, Charolais and Limousin breeds from a single herd in Lancashire that has been hung on the bone for at least 28 days; whilst lobsters are brought from Brittany and seafood from Bristol daily. My standout dishes were the steak tartare and roasted pheasant. The former is, I think, the tastiest I have had in the city, on top of which, the tableside service is a treat; it looks like this is my new favourite tartare, replacing the Wolseley’s. The latter was excellently made with the sheer generosity of truffles and richness of the gravy both striking.
Places to eat in this part of the City are hard to find. Sorry, I should have written good places are…Road after road is filled with chain restaurant or sandwich shop after sandwich shop. I do not want to go to either so I simply have fruit for lunch whilst at my desk instead. But now, finally, (almost literally) hidden amidst the dross, there is Le Bouchon Breton.
8 Horner Square, Spitalfields Market, E1 6EW
tel: 0800 019 1704
nearest tube: Aldgate East, Liverpool Street