Restaurants: All for one and one for all
Gascony, home of d'Artagnan, provides an earthy alternative to the fancier French fare. Forks en garde! Photograph by Madeleine Waller
Saturday 07 November 1998
Some attempts to give French cooking more contemporary appeal have been made by adding a little lemongrass here and some tempura there. One of the owners of Club Gascon, which isn't a club, has worked for his family's company, France's largest supplier of luxury ingredients from the region. And while the restaurant doesn't tamper with these or the more basic essentials - duck and offal, raw, cured and cooked - it does play fast and loose with the manner in which they are served.
Dishes are grouped together on the menu under fanciful French headings such as la route du sel (cured: saucisson, rillettes, pate, smoked salmon and caviar), le potager and les paturages (pasture, meaning duck, beef and pigeon). The idea is to pick three or four dishes from different sections in no particular order.
Foie gras features prominently, with a section to itself as well as guest appearances elsewhere. Having recently owned up to misgivings about foie gras, I had to try what my companions had ordered and admit this was where the chef, Pascal Aussignac from Toulouse, excelled himself. Duck foie gras (typical of Gascony) with piquillos, looked like a baby's fist gripping red ribbon, the pepper making a brilliant sharp, sweet contrast to the smooth liver; more duck foie gras grilled with black grapes was so sensationally delicious three of us fought over it. Also outstanding was a carpaccio of duck magret with a dressing of savory, which tasted like lemon thyme; another carpaccio of foie gras with xipister sauce - a Basque vinaigrette - draped generously over the plate in pale slices; and a heady gateau of cepes on an eggy base.
Satisfyingly good but not as exceptional was a plate of Pyrenees cheese laid in thin slices over a mound of herby salad leaves and smoked eel in a kind of spring roll of crisp pastry with horseradish cream to dip it into - it was well constructed, but the eel got a little lost inside its parcel.
Then we came to the confits and temporarily lost the plot. The cassoulet Toulousain - the beans perfectly floury, the sausage of the correct coarse but soft consistency - had with it a disconnected, tough piece of duck; a similar piece came as confit with creme fort (cream strengthened with chives). Neither had that falling-apart-at-a-touch, Ally McBeal personality. The cassoulet was particularly disappointing, not least because it's a dish you need to be able to get into your stride with (the French prefer it for lunch, to allow digestion afterwards), and this petite portion wasn't quite up to minute inspection. The chips, wedges, weren't as crisp as they could have been.
But it all ended happily, with fabulous puddings: praline ice-cream with chocolate sauce; goat's cheese and pear baked in a crisp pastry parcel, and almond pie with a little pot of pear juice beside it.
Although the Gascon's radical ordering arrangement has advantages - it allows you to try more than you normally would - it sacrifices some of the balance and rhythm of full-blown French dining, building up momentum course by course. To avoid disappointment, expect an enjoyably episodic rather than epic meal.
If you could work your way through two, three or more different glasses of wine the way you can with the dishes, the package would be complete. For the list shows the same rare devotion to the region, with a powerfully tannic Madiran, which is seldom found here, and Domaine Abotia, an unusual Basque wine. Most bottles are less than pounds 20. It seems only natural to follow this with one of the armagnacs listed with the puddings. My companions tried to go native on the pre-dinner drinks by asking for a pousse rapiere, a Gascon drink of orange-scented armagnac, which, mixed with sparkling wine, makes an aperitif. The waitress, a central-casting Beatrice Dalle beauty, looked blank but returned with tumblers of the liqueur with ice, which set off a dispute between them as to whether it was what they'd asked for.
From then on, service was informed and enthusiastic, struggling but just about succeeding in keeping the flow of food at the right pace. The room is marble-panelled Victorian and fetchingly mixes old and modern, though it is crammed with hard blue-velvet-covered chairs. And the tables are a little small for raiding each other's plates and tearing chunks off the soft-crusty bread that keeps coming.
Though no dish costs more than pounds 8, we managed to spend pounds 40 a head with one bottle of wine between three and one liqueur each. That may invite unfavourable comparisons with the cost of eating in France but nothing else in Britain quite compares
Club Gascon, 57 West Smithfield, London EC1 (0171-253 5853). Mon-Fri lunch, Mon-Sat dinner. Average pounds 30. Major credit cards, but not Diners or American Express. More regional cookery: page 76
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