All that time and money spent majoring in Parisian Brasserie Appreciation pays off the instant I walk through the door of the High Road Brasserie. It is immediately obvious to my acutely trained eye that Chiswick's newest, loudest, hottest dining establishment is not at all authentic.
Granted, it looks the part, with its dark wooden detail, colourful, patchwork-tiled floor, French doors, marble bar, and leather banquettes. There is even an ice-crusted, marble-based crustacean bar to one side of the main entrance, on the canopied terrace. But the waiters are far too accommodating and nice; the tables are far too well spaced; nobody is blowing smoke in my face; and there is no pitter-patter of tiny clawed feet under the tables.
Admittedly, it feels just like a brasserie, with its high level of buzzy chatter, long-aproned floor staff swooping and swerving, and brightly lit, clangy-bangy kitchen. There is even a choucroute Alsacienne on the menu, a reminder that most French brasseries originally had Alsatian roots.
Nick Jones (Soho House etc) and his team have certainly stayed true to the idea of the brasserie here, and at their Electric Brasserie in Portobello Road, just as New York's Keith McNally stays true with his inordinately popular Balthazar. These are not so much creations as recreations, theme-park brasseries that reference the style of furniture, ambience and food into a palatable pastiche. And if it works, why not? The brasserie is such a democratic, flexible, people-friendly invention that it's a shame we don't rip it off more often.
The food here is an easy, all-day mix of British caff and French bistro, running from Scotched quail eggs and moules marinières to mutton chops and parsley sauce, chateaubriand, and a variety of seafood platters priced at £25, £40 and £50.
The all-day, all-purpose menu means that those who really only want a smackerel of something- on-toast can do so - while dining with those who crave lobster and chips, or a major steak. I find the idea of sardines on toast (£7) utterly irresistible, and the reality isn't too bad either. Fresh butterflied sardines, all warm, gentle and softly flavoured, sit atop grilled sourdough with soft lettuce leaves and a creamy, piquant dressing, borne to the table on a wooden plank. A half-pint of Poole prawns (£7) sit pinkly in their glass, but are bland and squishy; poor value compared to their £4.50 equivalent at The Cow in W2 the day before.
Opened only a few weeks ago as part of a total package that includes a boutique hotel, a private members club and The Cowshed beauty spa, HRB is already a bona fide fixture on the Chiswick neighbourhood scene. Tonight it is brimming - squirming, even - with kitten-heeled and cashmered Chizzy Dizzies, permanently on high volume as they show off the viddies on their mobies, toast each other in champagne, and indulge in a little blatant handbag envy.
It is this sheer exuberant busyness that locks down the brasserie style more than anything. That, and the way the chefs in the open kitchen battle away valiantly to keep up with the crowd. The task is Herculean, and inconsistencies are inevitable. A mixed fish grill (£15) that includes salmon, tuna, white fish, scallop and prawn on grilled Provencal vegetables is a bit of muddle, with most of the fish rather firmly cooked. The same dish on the next table seems more precisely cooked, but they won't swap.
The choucroute garni (£13) is good fun, with its firm-skinned frankfurt; coarse, full-flavoured saucisse; and solid slab of smoked pork all draped over a nicely balanced fruity, winy, vinegary pile of sauerkraut. But two things conspire against it: one is that it is barely warm, having waited, ironically, for the fish to overcook; and two is that the spuds are under-cooked, robbing them of their comfort factor. I also find it hard to believe that you're expected to eat this from its small ceramic pot and, instead, recommend that you do what I do, and dish it out on to the base plate.
A French-driven wine list seems to be just as all-day and all-purpose as the menu, and a light and fruity La Chapelle des Bois Fleurie (£32) links our main courses with diplomacy. A side serving of cauliflower mornay (£3) does not, with its crunchy florets and watery sauce. To finish, a single floating island (£6) is more of a sinking ship, the poached meringue sweet and heavy in a sea of weak custard.
Nick Jones is an expert at pleasing most of the people most of the time, and here he is doing it yet again. The buzz is good, the prices bearable, and the menu adaptable, while the floor boys and girls are genuinely enthusiastic and work their bums off. The high turnover and pump-up-the-volume business plan puts a lot of stress on to the kitchen, which needs a few more seniors in it for quality control. But of course, Parisian brasseries such as Bofinger, Lipp and the iconic Balzar have been consistently inconsistent for over a hundred years. So perhaps this is a real brasserie after all. s
13/20 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
High Road Brasserie, 162 Chiswick High Road, London W4, tel: 020 8742 7474. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Around £95 for dinner for two with wine and service.
Second helpings: More brasseries
Brasserie Roux, Sofitel St James, 8 Pall Mall, London SW1, tel: 020 7968 2900 Roux means Albert Roux Senior, and here, brasserie means surprisingly elegant renditions of cassoulet, bouillabaisse and tête de veau.
Warehouse Brasserie, 30 West Street, Southport, Lancashire, tel: 01704 544 662 The brasserie goes global at this popular Southport venue, with trad favourites such as fillet steak with béarnaise as well as Singapore noodles and Mexican chicken kebabs.
La Brasserie Ma Cuisine Bourgeoise, 2 Whitton Road, Twickenham, Middlesex, tel: 020 8744 9598 A little piece of Francophile heaven, complete with long-aproned French waiters, Edith Piaf, coquilles St Jacques and côtes du boeuf.
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