As I walk down Selsdon Road, Croydon, peering in through the windows at families curled up on comfy couches watching television, I ponder the wisdom of opening a grown-up French restaurant in the area. Not because everyone is staying at home and cooking, but because everyone is curled up on comfy couches watching telly in their local Indian takeaway, waiting for their beef vindaloo to be handed over.
Malcolm John, chef/patron of the newly opened Le Cassoulet, hopes that Croydon is also waiting for its chance to dress up, drink Minervois and eat foie gras, escargot and 28-day-aged Chateaubriand. It is a long way from Chiswick, where, for the past four years he has run the popular French bistro Le Vacherin, but Croydon could well be the new Chiswick. There are plans afoot to transform it into a city of the future, complete with reclaimed waterways, hanging gardens and skyparks. And French restaurants, it seems.
Le Cassoulet looks great from the street, with its vivid burgundy colours, velvet-backed chairs, paper-over-cloth tables, striped banquettes, and black-clad staff in long white aprons going hither and thither. Once in, bread and menus are brought immediately, orders taken. It's half full on this Friday evening, with a mix including two mums-to-be hoovering up puddings, a former county cricketer and his date, and a father and son bonding over steak frites.
John, whose affinity with French bistro cooking harks back to his time with Herbert Berger at the Cafe Royal and a stint as head chef at St Quentin in Knightsbridge, has borrowed much of Le Vacherin's menu, listing Chateaubriand, steak tartare, baked vacherin and steak tartare. There is a distinct south-western accent as well, with the hero being the hearty pork, duck and bean stew for which the restaurant is named.
I find it physically and mentally impossible to see cassoulet on a menu and not order it, in spite of dim memories of Le Vacherin's version being undersauced and oily. It comes to the table in its own little lidded pot, complete with regulation crusty top, and a good mix of tender white beans, smoky sausage, shreddy, fall-apart duck, wibbly-wobbly pork confit and even bits of confit duck gizzard for good measure. Flavours meld and mix like the old friends they are; and the whole thing is a cassoulet-lover's bargain for £15. In the spirit of symbiosis, I choose a wine from the special list from south-west France and get a 2004 Domaine Berthomieu Madiran (£29) that is chunky, tannic, hard-working.
There is food other than cassoulet, of course. Sorry. A little glass preserving jar holds a shreddy, full-flavoured, potted ham hock (£6), and mussels bathed in a light, creamy broth (£5.95) have been properly plucked from the pot the second they opened, preserving their satiny texture. A smartly-put-together bourride of bream, squid and mussels (£12.50) comes with creamy rouille, but without the mussels or any depth of flavour; a small green salad shows a fear of vinegar; and a dessert of ile flottante is suitably light and sweet (£5.50), showing up the cloying custard.
The cheese course is an absolute highlight. Brought to the table on a wicker tray, it features whole, expertly kept cheeses, served generously - really generously - and with real knowledge. Comte is fast becoming my favourite cheese, and this one is as sweet and nutty as you would wish. Livarot is not too gamey, and the gooey spoonful of late-season vacherin is like clotted cream with the kick of a cow.
Le Cassoulet has not yet relaxed into itself, and the kitchen is perhaps too efficient in sending out food, but it's a nicely old-fashioned, "proper" French restaurant in an area that needs a bit of a leg-up. It has the potential to be the perfect neighbourhood restaurant; just as Croydon has the potential to be the perfect neighbourhood.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Le Cassoulet, 18 Selsdon Road, South Croydon, Surrey, tel: 020 8633 1818. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £85 for two
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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