Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, London, E1
The Galvin brothers bring French fine dining to a chapel in Spitalfields – but is it a transcendental experience?
Sunday 24 January 2010
My fellow reviewer, Toby Young, is married to a vegetarian, which is a good way to test a restaurant's range and imagination. I am married to a committed carnivore, which presents, in its way, as much of a challenge.
Take Galvin La Chapelle, the latest outpost from brothers Jeff and Chris Galvin, of Windows and Bistrot de Luxe fame. It is the turbo-charged, glossy high-end part of the operation, with its cap set at being a "destination" restaurant. And there's plenty of meat on the menu, which is why I take Mr M there for his birthday: two-month-old La Chapelle sounds like the kind of joint you can have both a three-course blow-out with a fine bottle of wine (him) and a more January-ish light selection accompanied by mineral water (me).
The challenge is that Mr M is a heartless brute. Well, that's not strictly true, but he believes meat is there to be eaten, in all its forms. So I'm expecting flak for allowing my guest to order both foie gras and veal... but it is his birthday and he's not representing The Independent on Sunday and hey, enough with the excuses. Suffice to say, for those who like sumptuously tender animal products, Mr M reports that they are both exemplary – and that's before he's too far into his celebratory wine.
He knows, before opening the hefty wine list, what he wants: Rasteau (a Côtes du Rhône personal favourite, not widely listed), and blow me down if the sommelier doesn't have it, know it and love it. They exchange doe-eyed admiration for the Domaine la Soumade 2007 vintage, a hearty red, while I sip my water and survey the room.
La Chapelle is, as its name suggests, located in an erstwhile chapel, in a small square near Liverpool Street station – a cavernous room kept pared down and almost ecclesiastical with circular wreaths of lights suspended from the high ceiling, and faux-distressed mirrors at the room's edge. An incongruous, but not unpleasing addition is a mezzanine floor, all glass and steel. It is empty tonight, which I suspect is more to do with the bitter weather than a shortage of City folk and foodie scenesters, who must be delighted by this new arrival in an otherwise unswanky bit of Spitalfields.
Back on the ground, a gaggle of waiters attend to our every need, and some we didn't know we had – two goes over the napery with a crumb-catcher, for instance. But they are well-informed and agile with the menu – I'm grasping towards a good mix of dishes and, with help, arrive at lasagne of Dorset crab with chanterelles and chervil (£11.50), followed by tagine of squab pigeon and harissa sauce (£22.50). The tagine seems a little rustic for a menu of French fine-dining classics, but the waiter and I agree that north Africa has brought much influence to the country.
The lasagne is a wobbly, gently flavoured soufflé-type affair, a light tower surrounded by an earthy, fragrant sauce. The crab is so delicate as to almost not be there, but it has what turgid food inspectors call, in their unlovely fashion, good "mouthfeel".
The tagine comes to the table in an Emile Henry tagine (the label I lust over more than any Louboutin or Chanel) and is unveiled as rather un-rustic – a neat circle of couscous, perfectly symmetrical pair of pigeon breasts, a crisp, pastry-shelled confit of the leg and (oddly), a tiny hard-boiled egg. It has shades of a culinary version of a Damien Hirst "mother and child" prank.
My waiter brandishes a tiny saucepan and pours a viscous, intensely savoury sauce over my dish. Another tiny saucepan is placed at my elbow, pulsating with freshly made harissa sauce. I'm warned to use it judiciously, so as not to nuke my tastebuds and it's a wonderful addition to the very rich, superbly tender meat and soft grains. Mercifully, the dish is less crammed with fruit than a traditional tagine and the absence of sticky prunes or apricots (just a few plump sultanas) means the complex flavours all complement each other. I adore it, and leave just the sad little egg.
Mr M has a blast from a long-off nursery past with rhum baba (bet it didn't have such a sluicing of smart liquor back then) and I go back to wobbly towers with a crème caramel of mouth-melting consistency.
We waddle back into the night – Mr M cradling the stoppered remains of his beloved Rasteau – delighted to have sated both our needs so completely. Spitalfields is never going to be my stomping ground, but if you want a near-holy experience with food, La Chapelle is recommended.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, London E1, tel: 020 7299 0404 Breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Dinner around £120 for two, including wine and service
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