Food & Drink: Such slow progress in the snail's saga: After some little local difficulties, L'Escargot has opened again with new names being dropped around the place. Emily Green sampled the results

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Indy Lifestyle Online
L'ESCARGOT, the soap opera, continues. For those unfamiliar with the Soho serial, a brief exposition: L'Escargot opened in the Twenties, but became fashionable only in the Eighties. At the height of its popularity, the food was fine, the wines were excellent and it was almost synonymous with Elena Salvoni. She was the manager, and had a deft touch attracting showpeople and politicians.

Then, after a change of ownership in 1988, L'Escargot became better known for bad debt. By last October, after a series of scandals, it finally went into receivership.

But, lo, salvation appeared in the form of Jimmy Lahoud, owner of the nearby restaurant Leoni's Quo Vadis. Elena left, the word being that a group of famous customers was going to set her up in a new restaurant.

L'Escargot countered with the news that it had its own new celebrity, Jonathan Ross. Moreover, while name-dropping, it would also have not one, but two, formerly Michelin-starred chefs: Gary Hollihead and David Cavalier.

After much ado, it seemed anti-climactic when L'Escargot actually opened in two stages: downstairs brasserie in late April and upstairs restaurant early this month.

The menu language downstairs is a curious mix of French and English. Of six first courses listed as 'hot', three involve snails. Fair enough, given the name of the place. A snail ravioli in a rich sauce was fine, though it would have been better had the pasta not been thick and tough. One menu section is cutesily headed 'farinaceous', meaning starchy. It includes risotto and pasta.

Of main courses, leg of lamb was buttery, but characterless; what appeared to be braised pork belly on puy lentils was dauntingly fatty. Of the veg, the parsnip puree was bland and slightly watery, the spinach over-salted. Yet one dish shone: a salad of salt cod puree on well-seasoned French beans, tossed with sesame, was delicious. So was a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which cost a rather sharp pounds 5 per glass.

Once upstairs, the menu is in English and the cooking superior, but the staff have a thing or two to learn. What is more, a set-price, three-course lunch costs pounds 27.50 (La Tante Claire, which deservedly has three Michelin stars, charges pounds 24.50).

Most of the food was good, some exceptional. Scallop bouillon was delicious, a good host for small strips of asparagus. A brandade of crab was fine. Veal kidneys were served with sweetbreads, and tasted fine, though the kidneys had not been thoroughly skinned. Zander, a delicately flavoured river fish (cousin of the pike), came on cabbage headily spiced with caraway. This was one for Egon Ronay: a Hungarian would swoon.

Two puddings were excellent: Calvados souffle and intense chocolate tart. Coffee is awful: quite a feat given that there is a snazzy, expensive machine downstairs and the Algerian Coffee Stores around the corner.

L'Escargot, 48 Greek Street (071-437 2679). Brasserie, pounds 30-pounds 40 per person; restaurant, pounds 40-pounds 50 including wine, coffee, service and VAT. Restaurant open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, brasserie daily lunch and dinner. Major credit cards.