L'Escargot, restaurant review: It is like a half-remembered dream of the perfect brasserie
The grande dame of Greek Street has been lovingly revived
Saturday 29 March 2014
This isn't so much a review as a public-service announcement. A rallying call to the dining dispossessed, the rained-on, snubbed and footsore, who have had their fill of queuing round the block for dirty burgers, or jockeying for counter space at the latest ramen joint. There is a place for you. A kinder, gentler place. A place you used to know. It's been right there, all along, just where it always was, in Soho. Its name is L'Escargot, and it's calling you home.
L'Escargot? Didn't that close years ago? Well, no. The grande dame of Greek Street, established 1927, has simply spent the past couple of decades in that state of suspended animation that seems to come with ownership by Marco Pierre White. From being the restaurant everyone flocked to in the 1980s, when clever Nick Lander made it the dining room of choice for Soho's burgeoning media scene, it has become the restaurant no one can remember when they last visited.
There's a huge fondness for the old place though, and the news that L'Escargot had been bought by a sympatico consortium and would be lovingly revived was met with a collective whoop of approval. The new owners have form in cherishing much-loved old-timers. MD Brian Clivaz has already managed to refresh another legend in his portfolio, Langan's, without damaging its essential Langan's-ness.
So far, the rebirthing of L'Escargot seems to have been similarly adept. The downstairs spaces have been buffed up, and still exude sepia-tinted comfort, like a half-remembered dream of the perfect brasserie. The walls are still lined with paintings, some of them good – Marco evidently resisted the urge to replace the art with his own Damien Hirst knock-offs, as he once did at Quo Vadis.
My guest David Shamash, the generous high bidder in The Independent's charity auction, was a frequent visitor to L'Escargot in its prime, but like me, hadn't set foot in the place this century. Given that this year's appeal raised funds to protect elephants, it seemed fitting to dine at the restaurant equivalent of an endangered species.
A new chef, Oliver Lesnik, has been in place since February, and his lengthy menu of brasserie greatest hits covers the waterfront – or le front de mer, as this Frenchified document would no doubt have it. Pretty much everything on it could have featured on L'Escargot's launch menu in 1927, from croque monsieur (£6) to lobster thermidor (£36), by way of coq au vin, côte de boeuf, and of course, snails.
After good bread, a supple knotted baguette which the urbane David identified as pain d'epi, we began with a shared dish of six escargots de Bourgogne served incandescently hot. The rest of the meal was uneven. A really good main of devilled ris de veau (the 's' is silent, as I now know from my guest), was a definite highlight. But lobster cocktail, served on the half-shell, was over-chilled, in a bordering-on-sickly Marie Rose sauce. Eglefin aux oeufs de cailles – I left David to pronounce that one – or haddock and quails' eggs baked in cheese sauce, was a comfort dish gone awry; again, all the flavours had been turned up to 11. And at £15, a vol-au-vent 'Vallée d'Auge' – a pastry case filled with some dull baby veg – was rather feeble value.
Still, it's the kind of room you want to linger in, and in my case, return to.
Fearing that my first visit was on an off-night (Lesnik was apparently off sick) I dropped by a few days later with friends, reservationless, for an impromptu supper. As Soho buzzed and burbled frantically, it felt great to seek sanctuary behind that once-familiar green door. And this time, the food was better, or maybe we ordered better, keeping it simple with coq au vin, moules marinières and steak frites.
On both nights, the crowd was sparse, more TripAdvisor than early adopters, as David pointed out, including some veterans who may well have been propping the place up since the 1980s. When business picks up, they'll need to do some staff training. Unlike Langan's, which has kept all those long-serving old waiters, the team here is young and skittish, and there's no one taking proper ownership of the room.
The new owners will iron out those glitches, I'm sure, so don't let them put you off. L'Escargot's dining rooms are as lovely as any in Soho. They need to be filled with people, and buzz, and a big, warm, welcoming presence. There aren't many of these old survivors left, and it looks like we're about to lose two more, The Gay Hussar and L'Etoile. Here's a place with history oozing out of its cornicing and memories engrained into its crackle-glazed paintwork. It's been given a new lease of life. Don't let it die.
L'Escargot, 48 Greek Street, London W1 (020-7439 7474).
Around £40 a head for three courses, before wine and service. Menu du theatre, £19.50 for three courses, 5-7pm, 9.30pm-12am.
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