FIRST BITE / Lie back and think of France: Emily Green eats very different food for the same price at two new French restaurants
Saturday 11 July 1992
It is not the only thing that shows on the menu. Reclining across the cover is a near-naked woman, who is presumably the inspiration for the restaurant's name. Semillante means vivacious. By contrast, she looks as though she has been on her back for a while and means to stay that way.
Our columnist Gastropod predicted that this restaurant would be a success. It is early days and the staff themselves, only four weeks into trading, are still somewhat unsure.
The restaurant consists of an airy, brightly decorated ground floor reception/bar with plaster of Paris drapes, and a large dining room downstairs. Both floors are handsomely fitted, with tables generously spaced. The Ogee motifs which look like a misguided embellishment are leftovers from the days when this was an Indian restaurant.
The menu is priced at pounds 26 for three courses - very reasonable for this part of town or, indeed, for anywhere, given the generous use of such expensive ingredients as pigeon, caviare, scallops, snails and oysters.
Meals begin with small, very salty brochettes, and canapes with scallops and foie gras. Starters were deft: snails cooked on a skewer, oyster and raw salmon in a light jelly from the oyster juice that gave the dish a zesty blast of the sea. It was the best dish of the meal - it could make you shudder and exclaim - as if you had just had a swim.
The main courses were passable. Beef fillet was poached in a veal and chicken consomme and served with melting shallots. The beef was, perhaps, a bit high for this treatment, leaving a slightly sour taste. Sauteed sweetbreads were served in strips, having bled away much of their juice on the kitchen chopping board.
The chef and co-proprietor, Patrick MacDonald Woodside, is the veteran of a series of French kitchens, including Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, La Tante Claire and Harvey's, where he worked on the pastry station. He no longer occupies that area, which was perhaps evinced by an over-cooked souffle. The staff are polite and solicitous, just the conductors for a cautiously chic outfit.
L'ESTAMINET, according to my dinner guest, the French cookery writer Marie Pierre Moine, is a medieval term for 'little joint'. Picture a big roast on a spit in the hearth with eggs cooking in the pan juices, cheap wine in clay jugs, buxom wenches and you have the Technicolor Fifties Hollywood version. This bears no resemblance to L'Estaminet on the borders of Covent Garden. None.
It might well mean 'bistro adapted for London', for this is the new restaurant of a French group that includes one of Chez Gerard's founders, Christian Bellone, who sold that Fitzrovia restaurant three years ago. L'Estaminet appeared last year.
Like Chez Gerard, it aims to provide no-nonsense bistro cooking. Unlike Chez Gerard, the atmosphere is slightly flat and prices are noticeably higher.
Some of the food is good. As a starter, a brochette of mussels with saffron rice was simple and well seasoned, although the mussels were the small, French type and were over-cooked: bigger British ones would better suit the skewer. Bay leaves and lardons had been intermixed and good olive oil trickled over the dish. The fish soup was fine, gritty with what was probably ground lobster shell and a heavy lacing of cayenne. The lamb chops were small, succulent and gamey.
But some dishes were disappointing, such as the duck salad, made with too-rare meat, surrounded by leaves tossed in a harsh, over-vinegared dressing. Sea bass was skinned and taken off the bone and served with indifferent Jersey new potatoes. The result was a sad, grey-white dish.
For the last two courses, two trolleys moved into action. The first was loaded with ripe cheeses, good water biscuits and slightly spongy but flavoursome walnut bread. The next carried lots of lurid, sticky little flans, and options of raspberries and cream.
La Semillante, 5 Mill Street, London W1 (071-499 2121). Approx pounds 40 per person including aperitif, three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Vegetarian meals; best to inform when booking. Children welcome. Smoking upstairs only. Air- conditioning. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri, dinner Sat. Major credit cards except Amex.
L'Estaminet, 14 Garrick Street, London WC2 (071-379 1432). Approx pounds 40- pounds 45 for four courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Low-level jazz music. Vegetarian dishes. Children welcome. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Major credit cards except Diner's.
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