La Trouvaille, Central London

Authentic French provincial cooking has become a rarity in Britain, but there's a revolution simmering in Soho
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Indy Lifestyle Online

One of the most annoying experiences for a Francophile stepping into a French restaurant in France is to be automatically addressed in English. They think that they're being kind, of course, but it rankles to be rumbled before you open your mouth. Is it the sheepish expression – that look of permanent embarrassment (often accentuated by sunburn) carried abroad by a certain class of Englishman?

One of the most annoying experiences for a Francophile stepping into a French restaurant in France is to be automatically addressed in English. They think that they're being kind, of course, but it rankles to be rumbled before you open your mouth. Is it the sheepish expression – that look of permanent embarrassment (often accentuated by sunburn) carried abroad by a certain class of Englishman?

No such problem at La Trouvaille. They answer the phone in French, greet you in French, take down your orders in French and would probably chatter away all night to you in French if you fancied the linguistic work-out. But La Trouvaille is in London. It's very flattering of them – very canny.

A sweltering Saturday night a week before one's wedding is probably not the best time to head into the West End. My intended developed a headache just short of the Tube station, and even after an aspirin balked at the encroaching reality of Soho on the hottest weekend of the year. Luckily Newburgh Street, a pedestrianised offshoot of Carnaby Street, proved to be a veritable oasis of calm among the bedlam of this revitalised district between Soho proper and Oxford Circus. Despite the relative lack of passing trade and the fact that it has only been open for nine weeks, La Trouvaille claims to do a good lunch business from the nearby offices of media land (set lunch is at £16.75 for two courses; £19.50 for three courses and cheese). While it was only half full this Saturday night, several of the diners gave the impression of already being regulars. Perhaps that was the effect of the friendly welcome. La Trouvaille could be that phenomenon nearly as rare now as a nightingale in Berkeley Square – a neighbourhood French restaurant.

Gallic eateries are these days as deeply unfashionable as cream sauces, onion soup and dining by the light of a candle stuck in an empty Mateus Rosé bottle. Successive waves of trendy new dining experiences, from tapas to sushi, have long since overwhelmed them. Chains such as Café Rouge have taken up a certain amount of the slack, but serve French cooking without spirit or character.

Where can you now go in London if you fancy a plate of snails ? Well, you can go to La Trouvaille. They serve snails and frogs' legs, forsooth. However, the chef had eschewed the traditional garlic and parsley route and offered "Snails Mémé Gabrielle style". Intrigued as I was by Mémé Gabrielle's style, I went for a starter of dandelion salad with cantal cheese and grilled pancetta, an imaginative variation on the ubiquitous rocket salad with shaved Parmesan. Dandelion leaves, which you often see being picked along the roadside in France (although usually to be fed to caged rabbits), are subtler in taste than the similar-looking rocket, and the dish perfectly evoked the mountains in summer, a sensation enhanced by the judicious aromatic éclats of thyme. My wife-to-be, Lizzie, claimed an altogether more prosaic experience with her celéri rémoulade with truffles and asparagus.

The chef, Sebastien Gagnebé is from the south-west, near Bordeaux, and although I am unaware of any mountain ranges in this part of France, my main course – pork belly with cream quenelle and preserved plums – was simply Gascony on a plate. In French butchers, I've have often eyed the joint of meat called petit salé – put off by its blanched colour and its name, a subconscious confusion of sale, meaning dirty, for salé, meaning salty. In the jumbled lexicography of my mind, " petit salé" was a "dirty little piece of pig", instead of a tasty morsel of preserved pig belly. I say morsel, but the chunk that arrived on my plate was a daunting lump the size of a Rubik's Cube. Lizzie initially thought it was someone's pudding. But the combination of pork belly and cream quenelle was an unctuous delight, nicely cut across by the sharpness of the plums.

On a porcine theme, they also serve pig's trotter – but only at lunchtime. Our other main course of confit of duck, served on a delicious bubble and squeak-style concoction they call "sarladaise potatoes", was spoilt by an overpoweringly salty "jus". But a refreshing dessert of lemon and thyme crème brûlée dealt with that.

This is hearty, regional cooking with a twist, done with considerable with confidence, but still grounded in a culinary sanity. It's all the rage in Paris, and I'd like to think that this type of fare will prompt a rethink at those provincial French establishments that are becalmed in a decades-long malaise of croquette potatoes and raspberry coulis.

And just as regional cooking may come to the rescue of Grand Cuisine Française, so regional wines may prove the salvation of the hyper-inflated and often indifferent chateaux of Burgundy and Bordeaux. For some time now I have only drunk Côtes du Rhône, which is both good value and consistently tasty. At La Trouvaille we went for a Fronton, Chateau Le Roc 1999, seduced by the following description on the wine list: "Thank you to the Knights Templar for bringing back from Cyprus the Negrette grape and giving us their lovely, lovely wine, subtle, ripe, fruity, morello cherries, almonds and spices." And, yes, it was rather good.

The cheery good humour of the wine list (a Sauvignon is described as "very prefumed, no worry ( sic), not Chanel"; another is "like licking an oyster shell") was reflected by the waiter, who was far from the starchy variety traditionally so favoured by Michelin, and left us happy to pay the service charge that brought our bill to £77 (which included aperitifs and coffee). If this is truly the new face of the French restaurant, then news of the death of French cuisine may have been premature.

La Trouvaille, 12a Newburgh Street, London W1 (020-7287 8488). Mon-Fri lunch 12-3pm, dinner 6pm-10.30pm, Sat lunch 12noon-4.30pm, dinner 6pm-10.30pm. Major cards except Diners accepted. No wheelchair access

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