EATING OUT / On the steak and marrow: The Launceston Place Restaurant
Sunday 27 February 1994
1a Launceston Place, London W8 (071-937 6912)
Open every day for lunch and dinner except Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner. Average price pounds 25 per person, two-course set menu pounds 12.50. All cards except Diners accepted.
FIFTEEN years ago, when there was a greengrocer's opposite instead of an haute couture establishment for very rich children, it was called Casa Porelli. It had rather uncomfortable slatted wooden benches like garden seats, tiny fringed green linen cloths the size of pocket handkerchieves on the tables, baskets full of not very fresh rolls, and the food was still pretty grim post-war Anglo Italian: tired spaghetti with a dab of bolognese, tasteless bits of fish or dried-up Wienerschnitzel.
Now it is called The Launceston Place Restaurant, owned and run by the same people who run the Kensington Place, and it is yet another tribute to the Glorious Revolution in English food that even we poor old wrecks from the Sixties have been lucky enough to live through while still just able to enjoy it.
The restaurant is in probably the best position in Kensington, at the hub of a number of streets full of big bankers and old-fashioned captains of industry. It has been so successful since it opened that it has swallowed the wine merchant's next door and now occupies the whole broad corner between Victoria Grove and Launceston Place itself.
It is a great deal less noisy and glamorous than the Kensington Place, with a lot of floor- length tablecloth and thick carpet, and at lunchtime is a bit literary, with novelists escaping from the books pages of the nearby London Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. In the evenings it becomes very grand bourgeois, with all the Kensington neighbours there in dark suits and hornrims, with their wives in heavyish powder and silk scarves, and the conversation turns languidly to property values, skiing holidays, yachts chartered for the summer and the problems presented by delinquent children long since grown up.
The service is brisk - linger too long over your choice and the expensively suited representative of the management may well cast his eyes heavenwards and suggest that he comes back in five minutes - and reasonably efficient. The waiters and waitresses are professional and attentive, and the walls are decorated with big watercolours. There is also, for those interested, as I am, in entirely irrelevant details, a very ingenious concealed hatch in one of the walls, about six feet from the floor, through which the waiters occasionally stuff used tablecloths.
The food is ecole Prue Leith, very reliable, filling and good, the ingredients in my experience excellent: the vegetables are slightly bland, but the boiled potato gleams as brightly as the French bean and the mange-tout, and the cooking otherwise is very ambitious. I am, as you may have gathered, not very good at culinary analysis, which always seems to me a bit like analysing jokes, but on this occasion I was so impressed that I actually looked up their entrecote a la bordelaise in my wife's illustrated copy of L'Art Culinaire Francais when I got home afterwards.
Food enthusiasts, I am sure, will remember the cooking of the steak in the pan, its withdrawal while still un peu saignante, the tossing in of the shallots, the resumption of cooking for one minute, the addition of flour, then of the half cup of red wine and the same proportion of stock, the caramelising of this gravy, the seasoning, and the 50 grams of diced bone marrow allowed to half melt into the gravy, which is then poured over the steak and served with more bone marrow on top. The entrecote a la bordelaise my daughter ordered at the Launceston Place was precisely that, and what is more looked exactly like figure 244 in L'Art Culinaire Francais. The bit I had also tasted just as good as it sounds.
The restaurant is strong on salads, and I started with an innocent but delicious plate of lamb's lettuce with a boiled egg. My daughter had a rather more expensive one, with meltingly wonderful foie gras. My wife, not being on expenses, had a piece of carrot bread.
We had both just got back from six weeks in Sydney, sated with some of the best food I've ever eaten in my life. My daughter, on the other hand, in the middle of a university term and hitherto pretty suspicious of anything more sophisticated than bread and Marmite, was feeling more ambitious, hence the foie gras.
For the main course, I had very plain pigeon, surprisingly meaty and pink and duck- like, with a mild risotto, and my wife had what looked like fish cakes, but which were in fact potato cakes filled with various kinds of mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce.
I thought they might have overdone it on the garlic, but my wife seemed uncharacteristically content. Meanwhile my daughter was yum-yumming her way through the entrecote a la bordelaise and polishing the plate. We drank a bottle of Crozes Hermitage, in my estimation the best value on the wine list.
Puddings, as you would expect at a grand bourgeois restaurant, are best at the country house nursery end of the range, with syrup puddings and mounds of solid chocolate covered with double cream.
My daughter had a banana tart, which was a very superior kind of banana tarte tatin, and with the time coming up to seven in the
morning in Sydney my wife managed a tangerine sorbet, and I had a glass full of creamed ricotta with chocolate sauce. The bill for two of us came to pounds 63 without the tip, and my wife's, I'm glad to say, to a great deal less.
The Launceston Place, it seemed to me in the end, passed the double test: we were jaded and jet-lagged and had a very good calming dinner; my daughter was hungry and adventurous and wanted something really special; we were all entirely happy and, as we used to say in the old grace, truly thankful.
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