If we really are headed for the coldest winter since 1962, then I know where I will be spending it. Club Gascon's newly revamped Le Comptoir is a winter restaurant if ever I've seen one. With all that cassoulet, duck confit, garbure, seven-hour lamb shanks, flageolet beans, foie gras, black pudding, full-fat cheeses, wild mushrooms and truffles floating around, I couldn't bring myself to walk in the door on a sunny day.
There are things to eat that aren't pork or duck fat, such as roast Catalan sea bass, steamed haddock with sauce vierge, marinated salmon with liquorice and fennel and omelette piperade, but from now until, say, April, the Le Comptoir menu is not so much a dining opportunity as a survival strategy.
Owners Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie have always done things their own way. Their Michelin-starred Club Gascon is an intimate, personal restaurant that rewrites the hearty cuisine of south-west France into haute-style small plates to share. Their Le Cercle, an elegant space off London's Sloane Square, is somewhat bossier and more creative with the small plates idea. And the Cellar Gascon wine bar is a great concept - planks of charcuterie, robust wines - but you can never get in for all the City boys. Now, Le Comptoir mixes the traiteur, fromagerie, patisserie, boulangerie, epicerie and wine shop it was, with a dozen or so bare wooden tables, a scattering of purple velvet chairs, and a blackboard specials menu.
The menu reads like a dream, and is priced accordingly. "Humble beginnings to share" run from £4 to £6.50, while main courses divide into "vegetal", "mer" and "terre", and cut out at £12. Take the platter of "piggy treats" served on a square of slate (£6.50): it's a mini buffet of cubed fromage de tête (head cheese), spicy pickled peppers, and slices of glossy, nutty air dried ham, lush boudin noir, homely toulouse sausage and earthy andouille (pig's intestine sausage). In spite of the strips of pig's ear being chewy, it makes the charcuterie platter at the new Galvin "bistro deluxe" look very underluxe.
Or try the dish of warm pumpkin salad with dollops of snowy white fromage frais (£6.50). The big chunks of roasted French pumpkin are like steamy pumpkin mousse, the fromage frais refreshing against its soothing sweetness. A simple shard of crisp biscuity pastry adds crunch.
The tall-ceilinged space opposite Smithfield Market retains its counters of cheese and cakes, racks of bread, and shelves of preserves, oils and vinegars. Food is the only décor here, apart from a monochrome mural of the long lost shepherds of Les Landes, who went about on high stilts, the better to watch their flocks and keep their feet dry from the marshes. I've a mind to borrow the idea to get home through Clerkenwell on a Friday night.
Foie gras lovers can force-feed themselves until their own livers balloon, but I've always been a confit fan. Here the confit is duck (£10), the skin crisp and the meat meltingly soft, teamed with a soft-flavoured garbure, a thick and soupy vegetable stew of cabbage, potato and beans from Bearne.
Something special happens when you are eating food and drinking wine from the same region. A ripe, spicy Chateau Miaudoux Bergerac (£5 for a glass/£19 a bottle) from the sensibly priced wine list (the most expensive red is £26) could have been made with confit and garbure in mind.
From the blackboard specials, squid Basquaise (£11) is a sweet and feisty dish of lightly grilled tiny squid on a braise of tomatoes and green peppers. Even a salad of bitter, curly leaves (£3) has loads of flavour with a sweet-sharp-salty vinaigrette.
This sort of food can so easily be heavy and rich. Here, it comes across as light and rich instead - all credit to the cook, Laurent Sanchis. Portion size is also regulated by the smallish, rustic, hand-made, oval platters.
Desserts are limited to the patisserie counter, but a simple little tarte citron (£2.50) shows this is not at all limiting. It is the perfect tart, the pastry crust fine and crisp, the tangy lemon curd barely set. I love it so much I want to cry.
Le Comptoir stands out for its value, its cosiness, and for the sheer pleasure of being able to dine on such likeable, consistent regional cooking without feeling weighed down by it. The all-male staff are helpful and thoughtful without wanting to go home with you, and fellow diners are from the lands of media, art, design and France.
It is so cleverly imagined and so deftly realised, that it puts most so-called bistros in town to shame. I am scoring it 16 out 20, which I realise is outrageous for this type of establishment - bare tables, one loo, patisserie for pud. But what is truly outrageous is that there just aren't enough places where you can explore the food of one region so completely and so well. Such a high score may not survive into summer, of course, but it's a comfort to know that at least I will. s
16/20 Le Comptoir, 61-63 Charterhouse Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7608 0851
Lunch and dinner Tue to Sat. Around £75 for two with wine and service
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
Second helpings: More restaurants with shops
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