Eating Out: Criminally good

CLUB GASCON; 57 West Smithfield, London EC1, tel: 0171 796 0600. Open for lunch Monday to Friday, from 12 to 2pm; for dinner, Monday to Saturday, from 7 to 10pm. Average price per person, pounds 30. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
YOU PROBABLY don't know this because I've been far too modest to mention it, but I once wrote this incredibly brilliant novel about a restaurant critic who is obsessed with French food. For added authenticity, I wrote the first draft in France where I lived for three months reading virtually nothing but the Larousse Gastronomique and subsisting on a meagre diet of foie gras and cassoulet.

Anyway, there comes a point in the book where the hero gets the chance to set up his dream restaurant. At the time I found this bit quite difficult to write, because I couldn't make up my mind what my perfect restaurant would be. Were I writing the book now, however, I would have no such problem. For as I discovered the other night, my dream restaurant actually exists. Its name is Club Gascon.

As the name cunningly suggests, its speciality is the cuisine of south- western France - Gascony. This is an enormous point in its favour if, like me, your favourite dishes include duck, foie gras and cassoulet, because those are pretty much all they ever eat in that part of the world.

The second enormous point in its favour - and to my mind this is an idea bordering on genius - is that it serves all its dishes in small- to medium-sized helpings; a sort of French tapas. This means you can try many more of the chef's specialities than you otherwise might, were you constrained by the traditional starter-main-course-pudding tyranny. Especially since there are hardly any distracting vegetables to fill up the space which all sane people prefer to reserve for fish and meat.

We booked our table for 8 o'clock on a Saturday evening. A far more sensible time to go than lunch, I think, because during the day, being so close to the City, the restaurant is always chock-full of bankers. And there are surely few things more off-putting than being surrounded by men in horrid grey suits braying about macho business deals.

When we arrived, the restaurant was almost empty (though it filled up later). This should have been a bad sign, but I found myself warming to the place instantly. I liked the friendly welcome, the chilled, trancey dance music playing in the background and the prettily-lit decor, cool, modern, but not too oppressively minimalist - redolent of the private members' area of a trendy nightclub, only more inviting.

And the staff, presided over by a sublimely helpful patron, were great too. They were all French, good- looking and snappily clad in chic black outfits. Whether you're male or female, I can guarantee that you will spot at least one waiter or waitress you wouldn't mind sleeping with. Which, of course, is a terrible, look- ist thing to say. But as my sister Hel, who is far more PC than me, observed: "These things shouldn't matter but they do."

My sister, incidentally, is a vegetarian and I only asked her along at the last minute because the original plan was to have a rare romantic dinner a deux. But the chance of taking a bleeding-heart veggie to a restaurant specialising in cruel, heartless, evil foie gras seemed too good to miss. Not that Hel was too mortally offended. There were more than enough meat-free dishes to satisfy her needs, particularly since Hel is one of those fair-weather vegetarians who don't think that foie gras count as animal either, because she asked me if she could have a teeny taste of mine, as a once-in- a-lifetime experience. "Urggh! Too much!" she said.

Which, as I tried to explain, is the whole point of foie gras. It is too much, much too much. It's so obscenely rich and unctuous and meltingly fatty and addictive that it really should be banned as a Class A drug. And I'm not talking here about the plain cold pate which is what most British people think foie gras is. What I mean is your actual fresh, whole duck or goose liver, flash-cooked so that it's crisp and brown on the outside and molten in the middle. You hardly ever find it in restaurants in Britain. But you get it at Club Gascon. They have their premium quality duck livers flown in twice a week from a supplier in Gascony. They serve them grilled, with caramelised grapes on a platter. And I'm sorry, but until you try that dish you haven't lived.

Frankly, I think it would be unduly pornographic (and a bit boring) if I dwelt overlong on the nuances of the various dishes we chose. Suffice to say that Hel had the Pyrenean cheese on herbs and leaves with tomato comfit, roast cod with seaweed sauce and pureed potatoes, and cocotte of mixed grilled vegetables; and I had sauteed mushrooms bordelaise, grilled fresh scallops with celeriac puree and mushrooms, and la garbure and comfit from Bearn (a sort of cassoulet soup flavoured with dill); and they were all bloody good.

A special word, though, about the cassoulet. I ordered it because I wanted to see whether any chef was capable of competing with the near-legendary version I perfected in France. Depressingly, the chef at Club Gascon was more than up to the challenge. His version was amazingly light and - considering the high bean quotient - unfarty (and here's a very useful fact, as conveyed to me by the matchless Clarissa Dickson-Wright: if you want to stop your cassoulet and related bean dishes from inducing flatulence, cook them with the herb winter savory. In Elizabethan times, when farting was a real problem, the Queen would have her bean dishes prepared no other way).

We finished with three excellent puddings - a lavender-flavoured creme brulee, almond tarte and, best of all, a frozen praline - which were all served in pleasingly minuscule quantities (pleasing, at least, for those of us who generally find puddings a huge, gut-bloating pain).

And we drank a very good Marcillac Cuvee Speciale ("rich, intense wine, vibrant purple colour and almost mineral touch on the palate," said the menu, accurately) from a short, intelligent, cheapish list specialising in regional wines like Cahors and Minervois. Or rather, we drank most of it. My final glass was accidentally knocked on to my brand-new agnes b shirt by our waitress. But she'd been so solicitous and charming that I didn't mind one bit. Anyway, I rather liked having the delightful proprietor coming to the table to fuss over me some more and offer me free Champagne and dry cleaning.

The only downside of our wonderful, wonderful evening at Club Gascon, as far as I can see, is that it is going to spoil me for every restaurant I try reviewing hereafter. I've been to cheaper restaurants and trendier restaurants and more spectacularly foodie restaurants, but I don't think I've ever been to a place - certainly not in England - where I've eaten quite such superb food at such reasonable prices in such a convivial atmosphere. Club Gascon is, as I say, my idea of a perfect restaurant. And if the proprietor wants to invite me back and lavish his hospitality on me for having told it like it is, then I shan't complain. In cases like this, I am eminently corruptible.

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