EATING OUT / Grievous bodily charm: Aubergine
Sunday 14 August 1994
11 Park Walk, London SW10 0AG. Tel: 071-352 3449.
Open Monday to Friday for lunch, Monday to Saturday for dinner. Set lunch pounds 18 per person,
dinner pounds 28. Prestige dinner pounds 36. All credit cards accepted.
LIFE for the restaurant critic can be hard. Hoping to have dinner at the , a highly-spoken-of French restaurant just off the Fulham Road, I rang to book a table for one of the two evenings I was in London. They were full on both nights. Not wanting to let you down, I booked a table for lunch. My wife being resolutely out of town, I had to choose a companion at extremely short notice, and invited a young Green person who recently enlisted my support in a campaign to try to stop a vastly enlarged A27 wrecking the peace of the Sussex Downs between Glynde and Firle.
The fact that she was very far from uncomely and listened to me wide-eyed throughout lunch, lips half parted, with the unwavering attention rarely accorded me by my immediate family was, I suppose, some consolation.
The is modern in design, fronted with dark glass and decorated in a pastel yellow, with what my environmentalist friend described as 'heavy duty air-conditioning'. The table was laid at the outset with large blueish Provencal-style plates bearing the name of the restaurant and a picture of two geese.
There was time to examine the menus: the main dinner menu has a limited choice of eight starters, eight main courses and eight puddings without specific prices and costs pounds 28; and the shorter lunch menu has two choices for each course and costs pounds 18, with the option of choosing your food from either. Then we then went down under a frontal attack of Maurice Chevalier Gallic charm.
The head waiter had, quite apart from ze sharmeeng notty highbrows fleekering hup and down, a way of pronouncing oil - 'oerl' - that would justify a trip from Ramsgate just to listen to it. He also wore an impeccable black suit and looked so 1,000 per cent competent you would trust him to land Concorde on a sixpence.
The lunch menu offered a salade St Jacques and ravioli de homard, the dinner menu every kind of treat. Starters included a vinaigrette of leeks and pressed lobster and a tortellini of crab with ginger in a veloute of chives; main courses offered pigeon 'poche grille', with a puree of swede and wild mushroom, jus madeira, and pot-roasted calves' sweetbreads with creamed watercress and a jus of ceps. Having softened us up with the barrage of charm, the head waiter struck home. He urged me to start with the cappuccino of haricots blancs with a mysterious 'trerful oerl', and my companion to have the tian of leeks and scallops, sauce champagne.
For the main course my friend took a moment's persuasion to have the chef's speciality, a fillet of sea bass roasted with braised salsify, and with a jus vanilla. I was offering no resistance of any kind, and accepted that I would have the blanquette of turbot with a ravioli of oyster and caviar. It carried a pounds 4 supplement.
The blue goose plates were swept away, and a very young wine-waiter threw himself into the charm assault with the kind of performance I remember vividly from school when very pretty younger boys played girls' roles in the Dramatic Society. Almost without realising it, I found I had ordered a Chablis Chateau de Maligny 1991 at pounds 18 a bottle.
Talking of schooldays, my companion and I discovered at that point that we had both been to the same public school on the south coast, and our scheduled conversation on the A27 rambled off into humorous reminiscence. I couldn't help wishing that we'd had girls in the school in my day.
This reverie was interrupted by the arrival of a tiny piece of pate de foie gras, framed with beads of caviar and accompanied by a crumpet of brioche, with the compliments of the chef.
The boy wine-waiter was on us in a flash, charming us into a pounds 2.40 glass of Sauternes to go with it. The combination of the sweet wine with the delicacy of the pate was enough to erase any memories of school, and was followed a moment later by an even tinier white coffee cup full of the most delicate gazpacho I have ever tasted.
I'm still not sure - my questions were turned aside in a flurry of French charm and flickering eyebrows - whether I owed these two 'surprises' to the fact that I look like Peter Shore or whether they are a regular feature to encourage lunchtime business, but I think it is only fair to mention them.
We then settled down to the real lunch. My cappuccino, a white froth fragrant with what turned out to be truffle oil and given texture by the beans, was beyond praise, and my guest was ecstatic about the tian - a sort of Chinese castle of pale green, roofed with a little heap of caviar - and particularly keen on the jus.
Back on the subject, my companion's English charm had gone on to overdrive: we talked of Glynde Station restored to full-time working, of once selfish car-users speeding off along the polished rails to Eastbourne and Hastings, to Portsmouth or Victoria, and were interrupted by the fish, about which I can say nothing more useful than that it was absolutely delicious.
By the time the pudding arrived the conversation had turned to the women's pool on HampsteadHeath, where my companion described swimming naked with her sister, and during that the pudding arrived. She had a tarte tatin of Cox's apples which she seemed to enjoy, I a creme brulee edged with slivers of dried apple, in a green jus Granny Smith. Lunch for two with drinks and coffee came to pounds 86.80 without the tip. I think it was the best food I have ever eaten in London, but I may by then have been slightly punch-drunk from all the charm.
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