Cigalon, 115 Chancery Lane, London WC2
Saturday 20 November 2010
Cigalon means cricket, of course, the Mediterranean version rather than the Aggers-and-Blowers one (or, come to that, the "French-cricket" kind). And the owners have gone out of their way to conjure a sense of being in a setting that might involve some Continental chirping in the shrubbery. What used to be the site of Hodgson's Wine Bar, in the heart of London's law courts, has been transformed into a small Provençal paradise.
The walls are overlaid with basket-weave struts. High mirrors reflect the complicated white pods that hang in metal lattices from the ceiling. The pods could be pupae waiting to become bees. At the entrance, trellises in a honeycomb design seem to await the arrival of honeysuckle. By the loos, a branching design climbs up the cream wall. Overhead, the light fittings are shaded by a graceful structure of spokes like the struts of an umbrella or an insect's wings. Between the chairs and tables lie several three-quarter-circle booths, upholstered in what looks like sackcloth and feels like corduroy. The booths are so warm and enclosing, it's hard not to think you're in a cocoon.
Before us the kitchen is on full display, accessed through knee-high walls of rendered plaster, like an unsuccessful patio, and the chefs work against an old-fashioned backdrop of white tiles, as though they're in a municipal bathroom. Have I painted you the picture yet? This is the Provençal outdoors, brought indoors. Wherever you look, you feel the spirit of a verandah, complete with bee, insect and cricket images. Even the cocktails continue the theme: the Thyme Daquiri fills your senses with herbs and rum, while my Sazerac (an old New Orleans concoction of bourbon, sugar and bitters) came rinsed in absinthe, the Green Fairy herself circling around my head.
The menu is a pleasing hybrid of old-fashioned Provençal (salade Niçoise, soupe au pistou, cote de veau with Menton sauce, and a "traditional lamb tripes and trotter stew" that I steered clear of) with Italian grace-notes of pasta and polenta. My date Angie's carpaccio of veal looked like salmon and was of such unearthly tenderness, you didn't need a knife to cut it. The accompanying rocket was crispy, the capers were tart and the three swung along together as though performing "All the Single Ladies" with the hand actions.
My cannelloni de daube de taureau resembled two spring rolls covered in Branston Pickle, but was delicious. The beef had been braised until caramelised, and it melted into the shallots-and-red-wine-with-bone-marrow sauce (sauce diable à la moelle) as seductively as Porphyro melts into Madeline's dream in Keats's The Eve of St Agnes. Both dishes, I noted, involved solids that were halfway to becoming liquids.
There was nothing ambiguous about the aioli de cabillaud, or poached line-caught cod. I've seldom seen a fish so perkily solid, so pristinely white. It had been steamed rather than poached, I suspect, as had been the perfect lumps of vegetable that sat in a tiny puddle of broth, while the aioli purée (potato, garlic and olive oil) was a beautifully subtle partner. A side dish of black olive mashed potato was tasty as hell (though a mistake if you'd eaten the tapenade bonne bouche). Angie's grilled red mullet was served standing upright, perfectly filleted, with tagliatelli and mussels. The fish tasted far stronger than my cod, having been cooked in the shellfish liquid. It was, said Angie, "a Marco Polo plate", starting off in Italy, discovering China and Japan and bringing back noodles (which is why Italy has pasta). It was like a deconstructed spaghetti alla vongole, with extra pungency.
Our waiter Stéphane, with his luxuriant whiskers and charming manners, was straight from central casting. When I spilt my cocktail, he rushed to procure another. When I asked how a sauce was constituted, he rattled off the ingredients. When I confessed ignorance of Provençal wine, he recommended a 2006 Bandol which opened out, over 90 minutes, into something close to nectar. He took a lively interest in our every choice of food and drink, without ever asking, "How are you enjoying it?".
We finished this excellent meal with a tian d'oranges, mandarin slices on caramelised orange mousse on a crumbly biscuit, and a less successful "traditional Corsican" cheese and lemon cake with blackberry sorbet. The sorbet was yummily touched with a hint of basil or sage, the cheesecake a bit too cake-y. Then, as we hit the coffee and the lavender madeleines, a small rustling noise crackled on the speakers that had been playing indifferent French-classical stuff all evening. It was the noise of crickets, calculated to send diners out into the night thinking they were in Carcassonne. This is quite an illusion to pull off in Chancery Lane. But then, the staff at Cigalon had been performing small miracles of transformation all evening.
Cigalon, 115 Chancery Lane, London WC2 (020-7242 8373)
About £110 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"
Side Orders: Southern comfort
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Tuck into a generous serving of sea bass and vegetables (£14.95) at this intimate, family-run restaurant specialising in seafood.
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The crab bisque (£8.75) and the warm garlic and saffron mousse with mussels (£7.75) are perennial favourites at this popular eaterie. )
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