Food & Drink: Eating Out - Vive la vieille cuisine!
Tired of the trendy? You won't find any pepper in your ice cream at Amandier, where trad is the word
Saturday 10 July 1999
But sometimes it's a joyous relief to find a floating island - cloud- like meringue on custard cream covered with caramel - for afters. The opening of an unreformed French restaurant in London is such a rare event you'd expect it to turn as many heads as the latest publicity-boosted, French-Vietnamese-themed gaff or sushi on roller skates, but it took a while for news of Amandier to filter through to me. When it did, I decided it was just what I needed.
The chef Daniel Gobet has arrived here via some of London's most archetypal French restaurants, notably Mon Plaisir, and though only six months old, his new one is a grandish, carpeted restaurant of the old eau de nil school. Small is also exclusive, and Amandier, on an anonymously expensive stuccoed corner near Lancaster Gate, is certainly petite. On its own it probably wouldn't be viable, but it shares a kitchen with the cheaper, simpler-of-menu Bistro Daniel downstairs.
Other diners were middle aged or older, and my consort, staggering round the corner from the Royal Society of Literature - venerable authors with large advances take note - immediately identified the ambience as "very Kensington". His geography was out by about half a mile, but his demography was spot on. Though it's always diverting to see someone you recognise in a restaurant, it's less so when that someone is a long-retired member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, and even then only the original grey businessman in a suit.
It would be cruel to suggest that Lord Young is Amandier's target customer, but this too gives you an idea of the tone of the place.
Also at odds with contemporary impatience, they made us wait some time for our food. Fabulous rolls, so fresh from the oven they were almost too hot to touch, and a good selection of wines by the glass from a list where madcap Australian names give way to established Chateaux, kept us going. Parmesan tartelette with croquant vegetables - crunchy asparagus, courgette, carrot, beetroot and others - was too much like a salad for my consort's liking, and where was the pastry? The tartelette part was a lacy, cheesy basket that he wasn't convinced he should eat.
Just as well he got his vegetables in then, because that was the last greenery he saw. He'd been sold the off-menu bouillabaisse special as main course and, though very good, its tidiness - this was no rustic bowl of soup sprouting ungainly sealife - made the absence of accompaniments conspicuous. Though tame for a bouillabaisse, with neat pieces of fish and scallops, the sauce-like soup had hidden depths, with a splash of anise and a lobster base to give it a bisquey quality.
The other starter, layers of pasta between pureed aubergine, spinach and tomato, surrounded by a lake of intense tomato sauce with chives was a deliciously modern, Provencal take on lasagne, and vegetarian into the bargain. My main course, a thick, circular, perfectly cooked fillet of Scotch beef, with pomme fondant and Bordelaise sauce, again speckled in that typically French way with chives, was pleasing but not remarkable.
At the first bite of fondant potato I noticed there was no salt and pepper on the table. This used to be a sign of the dictatorial chef - he, and it's always he, will be convinced his food needs no adjustment - and, although there was no other sign of egotism on the chef's part, it did confirm the kitchen's seriousness. I'd noticed the absence of self-service salt because the potato called for a speck more.
The red meat, the red wine sauce, the butter-basted potatoes and token green vegetables weren't exactly what the doctor ordered, but were exactly what I'd been looking for; not tremendously exciting, but the perfect antidote to the usual frenzied ingredient overload.
Anyway, Amandier still had its trump card up its sleeve. The point of puddings is that just when you think you can't eat any more they convince that you can and should. These succeeded gloriously. Passion fruit brulee, a large, shallow free-standing version more like a mousse, beautifully decorated with perfect raspberries and strawberries and surrounded with sensational strawberry sauce - they'd call it a coulis - was greeted with a spontaneous gasp of surprise from one who doesn't think a brulee should be messed about with. Chocolate souffle, into which raspberry coulis (or sauce, if you insist) was poured, with a raspberry sorbet in a brandysnap basket on the side, was just as breathtakingly good.
Petits fours with coffee were surplus to requirements but exquisite none the less. The stately pace of the meal, the price (dinner's a set pounds 29.50 for three courses, a few dishes have pounds 2 supplements), the earnestly incomprehensible waiters, the tasteful dullness of dining room and Piaf-esque background music are all reasons people have decamped from French restaurants. But the virtues of Amandier outweighed these outmoded aspects. For those who are tired of the trendy, either because they've had enough, or couldn't be doing with it in the first place, Amandier should suit not just the Lord Youngs at heart. We liked it too.
Amandier, 26 Sussex Place, London W2 (0171-723 8395/0171-262 6073). Open Mon-Fri lunch and dinner, Sat dinner. Major cards except Diners. Lunch pounds 15.50 two courses, pounds 19.50 three courses. Dinner pounds 25.50 two courses, pounds 29.50 three courses. 12.5 per cent service added. Bistro Daniel lunch pounds 9.95 two courses, pounds 12.95 three courses, around pounds 20 a la carte.
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