The Cafe Anglais hits London with a very swanky pedigree. It's a joint venture between Rowley Leigh, the legendarily convivial head chef at Kensington Place for 20 years, and Charlie McVeigh, the restaurateur behind the deeply wonderful Bush Bar & Grill in Shepherd's Bush. Mr Leigh learned classic French cooking under the eyes of Michel and Albert Roux when they ran Le Poulbot in the City of London, and the new enterprise is très self-consciously Gallic – the original Café Anglais was Paris's top restaurant in the early 19th century, as seen in the movie Babette's Feast.
It's rather a comedown to find the new incarnation is on the site of the McDonald's franchise in Whiteley's Shopping Centre and accessed through a dispiriting entrance where a young woman behind a desk directs you to take the lift. But suspend disbelief, and you're greeted by a large, friendly looking dining room with enormous lattice windows, banquette seats, distressed mirrors, long rectangular light-boxes on the ceiling and a strenuous air of Art Deco sophistication. After five minutes, I realised my jacket was becoming unbearably warm, and turned to discover (how did I miss it?) the restaurant's central attraction – a vast vertical rotisserie, on which a dozen chickens turned like very clingy lap-dancers.
The menu is comprehensive to a startling degree. It offers you a score of interesting drinks, including Floridan sherry and a syrupy Spätlese, then bombards you with a choice of 14 hors d'oeuvres, before you can think about the dozen first courses. My friend Emma and I chose three of the former, of which the Parmesan custard and anchovy toasts came exactly as advertised, the mussels with carrots and dill were cold, healthy-tasting and a blissful change from the marinière variety, and the kipper pâté with soft boiled egg was a knock-out. Who knew that smoked kipper and egg yolk would embrace each other like Marseilles matelots on shore leave?
The first courses, on inspection, were problematic: would you want to fill yourself, at this point, with a cheese and bacon omelette? Or pay £5 for spaghetti tossed in butter with no sauce? Or £30 for carpaccio with white truffles? The most exciting dish, pike boudin with fines herbes and beurre blanc, was not, I was assured, a black pudding made from fish blood, but an actual pike reconfigured into a new, sausage-like identity; but it was off-menu that evening. Curses. Emma devoured the warm smoked eel salad with bacon, and pronounced it "even better and cleaner tasting" than her first smoked-fish dish. Cheapskate that I am, I ordered a carpaccio without the expensive fungus; it was fabulously tender, a long way from the dry slivers of beef I know too well, but dressed, not with olive oil, but with a squiggle of creamed cheese which did it few favours.
The Café's long wine list is aggressively, and pricily, French, with a few Italian and Austrian varietals thrown in. Willoughby Andrews, the charming sommelier, steered me towards a 2002 Côtes du Rhône called La Pialade, which seemed expensive at £30, but was delicious, bizarrely redolent of strawberry jam.
For main courses, the choice was: game bird, game bird or game bird. You could go for pheasant, partridge, grouse, teal – or, of course, chicken off the rotisserie, if that's what you came to Rowley Leigh's fancy new place for. Okay, they threw in a token veal dish, and you could have a steak if you paid £42 and shared it with your date. Otherwise, it was like the end of a grouse-shooting weekend in Yorkshire. My friend had two teal – served whole, tiny and crouched and pathetic, with orange and red onion salad – and complained bitterly about their size: "The most you can get from this is four bites. It's not at all easy to eat without a special ... teal knife." I found it delightfully gamey, with a distinct whiff of putrefaction – more exciting than my glazed pheasant with escarole, chilli and walnut sauce, which delivered the nuts and chicory all right, but mislaid the chilli somewhere. A side-dish of pommes Anna, aka baked potato slices (invented by Alphonse Dugléré, chef-patron of the Parisian Café Anglais) was a treat.
In a last-ditch bid for simplicity, the pudding menu offers plates of plain fruit: quinces, prunes, mangoes, russet apples. Emma went off-menu and ordered pineapple, which came in slices dripping with succulence. I chose a sherry trifle which was forgotten about; after 25 minutes I remonstrated and was told it had dropped off the menu anyway.
What a strange place the Café Anglais is: both cool and scorchingly hot, the menu wide-ranging but very narrow in the main courses, the service super-attentive then forgetful. Maybe you become a little confused when you open something called The English Café (but en français) staffed by English people, cooking French dishes, with English raw materials, in the heart of London.
Le Café Anglais, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2 (020-7221 1415)
Around £130 for two, with wineReuse content