Café Luc, 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1
Saturday 17 July 2010
The eponymous Luc is Luc van Oostende who (as his name subtly hints) comes from Belgium. Luc and his daughter Julie – a graduate of "the world's leading hotel management school" no less – have acquired a large Victorian building that was home to Eat and Two Veg, and installed a dead-chic brasserie in it.
Outside, the walls are olive, and the awnings pea green. Inside, the same colour scheme is ritzed up, with lots of natural light and mirrors, by the people who made the Café Anglais look cool. Arrayed along the bar are stacks of hand-blown gold glass bulbs from Murano. The walls feature a recurrent tangle of 11 lampshades, artfully arranged, every few feet. The tables are stern black wood, the chairs comfortable, squishy, brown banquettes (I often think that, unless your companion is an alarming boss, a pushy date or a future father-in-law, it's always jollier to eat lunch with someone beside you). And in Parisian-brasserie style, they provide enough mirrors for you to check your look all through the meal. If only there was a brass rail running along the banquettes, you could be in the Dome. It's all terribly stylish, and a teeny bit stern, as if its core demographic are Benelux software designers.
Luc et fille have adopted the gastronomic orthodoxy that a modern brasserie must be all things to all people. They advertise Café Luc as an all-day operation, opening at 7am. Their Full English B, as Bertie Wooster would say, is a reasonable £12, while breakfasters of more European sensibility can plump for warm quinoa with banana and sultanas. They'll offer you brunch-y hamburger stuff if you rise at noon, afternoon tea'n'cakes if you're parched from shopping in Marylebone High Street, and fancy cocktails if it's after 6pm. But a brasserie stands or falls by its three-course lunch. It is any good?
The menu is "classic" French-Mediterranean, and you tick off the predictable dishes with a yawn: foie gras, steak tartare, tuna and swordfish carpaccio, goat's cheese salad, sea bass, Dover sole, duck confit, braised lamb, risotto. The only bit of excitement is the £14.50 two-course menu that is innocently entitled "Daily Express Menu". My date and I wondered what a "Daily Mail Menu" might offer. Ballotine of ghastly asylum seekers? Tartine of celebrity cellulite? Souffle of collapsing house prices...?
The food, though, was terrific. Madeleine's crab tian was a little work of art, a roundel of crab and avocado sitting on a spirograph of pink radish slices, surmounted by a quail's egg. The crab tasted good, although I'd question the addition of a wodge of cream cheese. My Scottish scallops were, unusually, steamed in a wine marinière rather than seared in a pan, and given a wallop of basil pesto. How odd to find, amid such sophistication, an awful lot of roughly-diced carrots that added nothing but crunch. ("How come," Billy Connolly used to wonder, "every time you're sick, there's always diced carrots in it? I hate diced carrots.")
When the mains arrived, I felt like buying an easel, brushes and oils and painting them. The brick-red-with-orange-terracotta of Madeleine's red mullet served with a roux-like bouillabaisse reduction was a gorgeous combination that tasted as good as it looked. A courgette, mandolined into a bouquet of slices, was delicious, as were the saffron potatoes. Only the courgette flower was wrong, deep-fried until it was tough and chewy (it's a flipping flower – it should be light as thistledown).
My organic chicken supreme with champagne, wild mushrooms and pappardelle was an irresistible combination. The chicken's crusty edge met the pasta's creamy softness and fell instantly in love; then, when you sliced through the breast, a platoon of lardons and sweet shallots cascaded down to greet it. This was easily the loveliest chicken dish I've tasted in ages.
All this comes at a hefty wedge. The mullet was £19.50, the chicken £17.20, Dover sole is £30, and fillet of beef £27. Perhaps they have to charge so much to pay for the staff over-manning: along with our charming waitress, we were served by about 10 people in 90 minutes. And you'd think one of them would have found a way of chilling the Macon-Villages before making it one of the "wines by the glass". But criticism froze on our lips when we shared the pineapple pudding. A thin pineapple slice, dried and snipped, formed a Mohican haircut on a coconut sorbet, above a far roundel of roasted pineapple on a carpet of pistachio and crushed rose sweetie bits. Such drama! Such romance!
Café Luc has bags of style and its chef David Collard has a rare eye for beautiful display as well as flavour. If he reins in some wayward tendencies (diced carrots, gratuitous cheese) and if the sommelier remembers to chill the wine, this place will soon be word-of-mouth news all the way from here to Ghent (and Aix).
Café Luc, 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1 (020-7258 9878)
About £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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