Les Deux Salons, 40 William IV Street, London, WC2
Saturday 30 October 2010
It's not often I look at the menu in a new restaurant and start drooling. But suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, that's what I found myself doing at Les Deux Salons. One minute I was sliding on to a dark leather banquette, taking in the discreetly glamorous room – grand Parisian brasserie by way of Mad Men – and registering the presence at a nearby table of TV's Fiona Bruce. The next, menu in hand, I was fighting the urgent need to swallow. "I'm drooling!" I squealed, at the risk of provoking one of Ms Bruce's legendary eyebrow lifts.
But get a load of this. Warm sweet onion tart, crumbled goat's cheese and figs; belly of pork petit salé, lentils and autumn vegetables; autumn salad with quince, walnuts and dolcelatte. This is the stuff a hardened restaurant-goer's dreams are made of – borrowing heavily from France but with a best-of-British sub-plot to gladden the heart of the late Jane Grigson.
The men behind Les Deux Salons, Will Smith and Anthony Demetre, have already shown a golden touch when it comes to launching great restaurants. First with Soho's Arbutus, then Mayfair's Wild Honey, they effectively rebooted the London dining scene, by stripping the frills from fine dining, keeping prices down by coaxing gutsy flavours from less favoured cuts, and democratising the wine ordering experience by making all wines available by the glass, carafe or bottle.
Les Deux Salons, their third restaurant, is bigger and more straightforwardly French in feel than its predecessors, sitting just off the dusty end of St Martin's Lane towards Charing Cross, opposite Terroirs.
Cynics might detect that it essentially offers a greatest-hits compilation of features from other well-loved London restaurants – the brasserie de luxe design from Galvin; the dining counter from J Sheekey; the regular plats du jour from the Wolseley; the Ivy's flexible menu structure, balancing retro revivals, brasserie classics and more contemporary dishes. But those semi-familiar elements are reprised with such panache, it's hard to resist.
The downstairs dining room has a distinctly masculine vibe, with its mosaic marbled floors, dark woodwork, and handsome stained-glass skylight. But there's mystery too, in the sexy little side areas, velvet-curtained nooks, and foxed mirrors reflecting pools of light. Upstairs, a smaller second salon feels more intimate.
Appropriately, in this border territory between Whitehall and Theatreland, the menu caters for both Horace and Doris, with soups and salads sitting beside brawn, andouillete de Troyes, and double veal chop from the charcoal grill. My friend Caroline and I hedged our first-course bets by ordering a couple of butch starters, plus a ladies-who-lunch salad. Snail and bacon pie arrived in a cast-iron skillet domed with perfect pastry, which yielded to reveal plump snails in a heady wine and garlic sauce. Equally indulgent were lamb sweetbreads bouchée à la reine, the pert sweetbreads folded into a mushroom-rich béchamel inside a choux-pastry case, like the world's poshest vol-au-vent.
By contrast, our third starter (OK, so Fiona Bruce didn't order a third starter, but we were working, right?) could have leapt from the pages of the Ottolenghi cookbook – a fashion plate assembly of broccoli and nutty quinoa, spiked with preserved lemon zest and jewelled with pomegranate seeds.
Both our main courses were identifiably restaurant dishes, rather than brasserie ones. Pan-fried plaice was lifted by a stuffing of shrimp and kaffir lime leaves, and partnered with salsify and trompette de la mort so sophisticated they threatened to overshadow the main event.
Also sophisticated, almost to a fault, was Caroline's saddle of rabbit, in which the meat had been stuffed with a forcemeat and rolled into caul-wrapped parcels. What seemed to be carrots revealed themselves as pumpkin gnocchi, swoonily autumnal under a rubble of crushed hazelnuts.
Weirdly, given the high quality of the more complex dishes, gratin dauphinois was waterlogged and under-seasoned. Nor were we blown away by a dessert of pain perdu which apparently recycled the contents of yesterday's bread basket. But our second dessert, îles flottantes, was ambrosial; textureless clouds of fluff, sprinkled with a dust of pink pralines, in a stand-your-spoon-in-it custard.
Including coffees, a house apéritif of prosecco with fresh pear juice (delicious), and a £10 carafe of Albarino, our bill came to £120 with service. It says a lot about the aspirations of Les Deux Salons that no wine on its shortish list costs more than £100. Smith and Demetre are not targeting the hedge funders, but regular diners who want a great meal without having to pay through the nose for it. Like the Parisian brasseries it's modelled on, Les Deux Salons is a place you could use for any occasion. I've already booked to go back for a work lunch soon. I'll probably have the slow-cooked ox cheeks with puréedmmmm – oh God, I've gone again.
Les Deux Salons, 40 William IV Street, London WC2 (020-7420 2050)
Around £55 a head including 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'
Side Orders: Brilliant brasseries
1 Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131 557 5000)
This brasserie at the Balmoral Hotel serves mains such as "osso bucco" of monkfish, with potato, fennel, saffron and rouille.
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Try the pike boudin followed by French partridge with cabbage and bacon at Rowley Leigh's classic eatery.
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This fantastic eco-brasserie serves main courses including grey mullet with potatoes, runner beans, lemon and mayonnaise.
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