It's an evocative word, pistou. It literally means 'pesto' but I associate it with a very Provençal form of comfort eating: soupe de pistou, into which you throw every vegetable you can find in the kitchen (onions, leeks, potatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, green beans, borlotti beans, any other beans, courgettes, tomatoes, parsley) before adding pasta and – at the end – a handful of basil and grated Parmesan. Can you think of anything heartier or more guaranteed to cause gastric eructations? Me neither. The all-inclusiveness suggested by the word makes it a fine name for a restaurant.
On a brass-monkey evening in December, it certainly looks fine and cosy. The outside décor is somewhere between pistachio green and duck-egg blue while inside the walls are whitewashed, except for an alcove in shocking Schiaparelli pink. French-bistro detailing is everywhere: the marble on the bar, the high stools, the silvered mirrors, the half-lace curtains. It's an immediately likeable joint, where our fellow diners suggested a complex demographic of ages, from cool young hipsters to aunties in Brora cashmere.
The chap behind the place is Alex Mackay, who has spent many apprentice-hours in Provence, lucky fellow, and used to run a cookery course at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. You can trust his cooking judgement. What I'm less sure about is his judgement about how to serve everything.
The menu offers snacks, small plates and large plates, in the modern way, rather than that tiresomely old-fashioned thing of starters and mains. Our lovely waitress explained that every dish comes prepared for sharing – order rib-eye steak and it'll arrive sliced, like tagliata. She also warned that everything ordered would be served the minute it leaves the oven. But (I complained) if we order several Light Bites and Small Plates and Large Plates, we could wind up with seven or eight plates cramming a tiny table. I don't really understand the urgency of the each-dish-served-when-it's-ready rule. Yes, it'll arrive hot – but it'll then have to sit there, cooling down, while you race through all the other dishes that arrived two minutes earlier, in order to eat it before it's cold.
We ordered seven things. Prawns and basil was served as a long feuille de brique pastry which shattered to reveal its contents, like a Christmas cracker, its prawny heart to be dipped in a tomato and basil butter sauce: delicious, if brief. Barbajuans, or deep-fried packets of goat's cheese, were sharp and unyielding but melted a little in honey sauce. Pissaladières were disappointing – they should be like mini-pizzas with a dough base and onion-tomato topping. These, made with puff pastry and surmounted by diced chorizo and goat's cheese, tasted weirdly insipid.
Fougasse, the country bread of Provence, arrived as our fourth dish – a bit late, if its job was to take the edge off our appetites; its accompanying tapenade was light and tasty. Salt cod croquettes were sensational constructs of creamy salt cod with potato in a casing of breadcrumbs. Dipped in mayonnaise with sweet Spanish red peppers, it was ambrosial.
Hang on a sec, though. We'd had prawns in pastry, cheese in pastry, chorizo on pastry, olive on bread and fish-with-potato in breadcrumbs... By the time we noticed how carb-tastic we'd been, it was too late. We were full up, with two courses to go – and when they came, they were huge. Spatchcocked poussin was beautifully roasted and baby-soft in texture, seasoned with pickled lemons and a Moroccan fruit called ras-el-hanout, and served with a sauce of dried apricot. It was interestingly bitter-sweet, like Seville oranges, but was far too sweet for the poussin's fleshy innocence.
My chargrilled lamb cutlets were gigantic, like the legs of the Orcs in The Hobbit; they could have fed a platoon of squaddies. They were juicy and wonderfully smoky but given minimal support by sun-dried tomatoes and a trace-element of green pistou. A side-order of Dauphinoise potatoes was creamy and cheesy, but should have been given a final crisping. Green beans and carrots with parsley and shallots were sublime.
How we found room for pudding, The Pistou, I'll never know, but we had to try it. Imagine plums roasted until they've lost their tartness, perched on a sauce of blackcurrant, plum and olive oil, given a silken stroke of vanilla mascarpone and a dash of blackcurrant sorbet – and topped with a caramel-and-pine-nut tuile biscuit dusted with basil sugar (the only actual Pistou element). It was gorgeous.
The Café is a lovely place: the food is excellent, the service charming, the atmosphere bon vivant, the wine list appealing. I just wish there'd been an advisory sign saying, 'Don't overdo the starters' and another saying: 'Go easy on the carbohydrates'. We don't all want to end up like Gérard Depardieu.
8-10 Exmouth Market, London EC1 (020-7278 5333). About £40 a head before drinks and serviceReuse content