Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, London E1
Saturday 12 December 2009
Chris and Jeff Galvin are shaping up to be Britain's most successful restaurant-owning brothers since Albert and Michel Roux. Unlike the Roux brothers, the Galvins specialise in fine cooking, rather than fine-dining, and they are English, not French – not that you would ever guess it from their food; an evolved, contemporary take on classic cuisine bourgeoise.
The Galvins' first joint venture, after successful solo careers in some of London's finest kitchens, was Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, an instant hit when it opened on Baker Street in 2005. Soon after, they went vertiginously upmarket, with Galvin at Windows, where the combination of Chris's cooking and the spectacular views from the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton almost made up for the sheer barking weirdness of the place.
Now the brothers, with other family members, have opened Galvin La Chapelle, their most ambitious venture to date; a true destination restaurant which replicates the bustling congeniality of Bistrot de Luxe in a setting with all the wow factor of Windows.
La Chapelle is one of the few truly fabulous-looking restaurants in London. Apart from the Wolseley, it's hard to think of many dining rooms to rival this dazzling conversion of a Victorian school chapel, tucked between the towers of Broadgate and the redeveloped Spitalfields Market.
Unlike most City restaurants, which have a slightly muted and apologetic atmosphere on a Saturday night, La Chapelle crackles with excitement and discreet glamour. We arrive in a rain-soaked huddle. A bowler-hatted doorman whisks us into the arms of a flurry of formal, black-clad staff. And suddenly we're standing, coatless and agog, in a fantasy restaurant, the kind of place that you usually only see in movies.
The huge Grade II-listed St Botolph's Hall has been gutted. Its raw brick walls soar up to a distant ceiling, crosshatched with a tracery of joisting. Side areas, shadowy behind marble pillars and swaggering velvet drapes, open out from the central, brasserie-style dining area, which has a similar feel to the Bistrot de Luxe, with glass partitions, crisp napery and button-backed leather chairs.
My designer friend immediately identified the look of the place as "very Keith McNally", referring to the king of downtown New York dining. And there is definitely a downtown feel to the conversion, thanks to a half-mezzanine floor newly suspended overhead, adding an urban glass-and-steel edge to the cathedral-like setting.
Regulars at Baker Street will recognise some old friends on the menu; in fact, I belatedly recognised my starter as the same I'd ordered when I reviewed the Bistrot in 2005, a lasagne layering discs of wobbly pasta with white crab meat, lapped with a musky foamed sauce and topped with chanterelles.
Other starters included a (rather meagre) assembly of roasted autumn vegetables with walnuts and goat's cheese, and a salad which paired gamey slices of red-leg partridge with pomegranate in a maple-syrup dressing which stopped just shy of over-sweetness.
City trenchermen are well catered for with mains like braised veal cheek, served with pommes purée. On the lighter side, grilled fillet of sea bass, served with herb fritters, and supreme of Landaise chicken, poached then pan-fried, were both well-made, if unsensational. The most exciting dish of the night was the one that strayed furthest from the traditional French repertoire, a Moroccan-inspired pairing of squab pigeon and couscous, served in a tagine, with a jug of fiery harissa.
We were back in heartland France for the desserts; I felt like the lady in the Cointreau ad when our French waiter murmured me through my prune and Armagnac parfait, served with prunes that 'ave been soaked in Armagnac for sree merrnts. It came cheffily adorned with an aerial-shaped brandy snap, leading to speculation from the men that we might be able to pick up Sky Sports on it. More simply presented, but no less terrific, were a buttery pear tarte tatin and rhum baba, served with crème Chantilly and anointed with rum at the table.
Service is not quite flawless – we waited for too long to order our drinks, and there's a tendency to over-fill glasses, leading us to order more than we'd intended from a list full of interesting wines. Before wine and service, we paid around £45 a head, which won't deter the expense-accounted business diners who will make up the bulk of the clientele during the week. On a Saturday night, the crowd was much more mixed and fun than the City norm, and there's also the option of eating at the more casual (and cheaper) Café de Luxe which shares the building.
Usually I leave this kind of high-end restaurant knowing with a hard certainty I will never go back. La Chapelle, like the Bistrot de Luxe, is a restaurant I know I will happily return to. It's a place to celebrate a special occasion, and a place that would make any occasion special.
Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, London E1 (020-7299 0400)
Around £45 a head before wine and service
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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