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Club Gascon

The Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler heads to Pascal Aussignac’s revamped Club Gascon in London EC1 where she finds an attractive attention to detail in the stripped back surroundings

Attack and invention are palpable right from the start with the presentation of MIAM which apparently stands for “mon invitation à manger” or, in other French words amuses-bouches, brought unbidden to the table. They are dramatic — one like cubes of coal balancing on a piece of coal — and mostly delicious, especially the thin biscuity truffle sandwiches, grapes in a glaze that traps chopped nuts and fennel seeds and slender pastry console tables topped with shellfish tartare.

An eye for colour, delicacy and transfiguration proves a constant hallmark of the kitchen, resulting in small but perfectly formed assemblies such as marbled foie gras, fig and argan oil; roasted sturgeon, leeks, crispy bone marrow and craster (smoked fish) sauce — a particular favourite of Philip Leigh; braised veal sweetbreads, lobsters and and cuttlefish tagliatelle; mallard consommé, chestnut pulp, white truffle and aromatic pears.

These are chosen from three fairly self-explanatory sections on the à la carte titled Gascon, Season and Garden where prices ranging from £15 to £39 and order of appearance indicates whether a dish is designed as a first or main course. Daintiness is a watchword. Foams are not resisted and in tweely described Dover sole, crab and friends billows of bubbles contribute to a not-altogether-welcome retro feel. At the same time, Delia would reel away from the dots of sauce that spatter some plates.
I would love to give Pascal Aussignac four or five stars almost as much as I suspect he would like the Michelin Guide to give him a second after 16 years of holding just the one, but at present there is too much anachronistic folderol.


Noizé in London is pleasantly low-key yet unmistakably French, says the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon.

Noizé is named after a village in the Loire valley, and is, like my waiter’s accent, as French as you could wish. To me, that’s the appeal of French restaurants: not necessarily the food, but the Frenchness. That inimitable air of sighing stoicism, of unperturbed fatalism. The atmosphere at Noizé, I’m delighted to say, was immaculately French. The music in the background, for example: quiet, understated, wordless, and overlaid with meandering, melancholic saxophone. A kind of musical Gallic shrug. A melodic ‘bof’.

The scallops, it turned out, were good: soft and melty. My friend had straggly little white worms of squid, in texture almost like spaghetti, topped with strips of smoked bacon and skinny slices of apple. Unlike so many squid dishes at the moment, it was thankfully not doused in bitter ink.

My main was the short rib. When they called it short, they weren’t joking. I don’t know whose rib it was – perhaps a shrew’s. Still, it came with the fluffiest little pillow of potato. My friend’s main, the partridge with celeriac and dauphinois, was almost as titchy as mine. Three small blobs of food, huddling together in a vast white expanse of plate.

For pudding I ordered the baked Alaska. In appearance, it was somewhat unconventional. Chubby, slug-shaped and coated in an armour of brownish knobbles, it looked, as my friend pointed out, like some rare species of sea creature you might find on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. To taste, though, it was delicious: ecstatically light.

It’s not bad, Noizé. Decent food, pleasantly low-key setting, attentive staff, French. Also: it’s nice and near the Tube, so you won’t need to ask anyone for directions.

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Giles Coren from the Times and some famous friends descend on Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London SW3 where he is reminded that any more than one Michelin star signals an elaborate game involving dress code and endless enquiries from front of house staff

I went to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay with the lads. The original one on Royal Hospital Road, where I went a couple of times back when Gordon was still cooking, and quite liked, but which I never got round to visiting in the Clare Smyth era, so thought I might review now that she’s gone, and her head chef, Matt Abé, is chef de cuisine.

By “lads”, I mean my fellow restaurant critic Tom Parker Bowles, the Mancunian street-food and cocktail entrepreneur Jonathan Downey and the spud-flogger Gary Lineker, the second highest goal scorer for England never to have paid for sex with a granny. So far as we know.

Smaller than I remember. And I remember it small. Smartly redone a couple of years ago in the art deco style, it must look great when empty, but it was so rammed with waiters that I couldn’t really see it. Like a logjam of London taxis in theatreland, they were.

And they talked too much: endless inquiries about whether we’d been there before, welcomes if not, welcome backs if yes. (Pointless and a bit rude. You should either know or find out beforehand – this is meant to be three-star service.) Then the lengthy explanations of the menu (essentially, “We have food”), which you’d only need if you had never eaten in a restaurant before in your life, and an inability to answer any supplementary questions with anything but a reiteration of what was already written on the menu.

The cheese puffs were as fresh and hot as ever. The mushroom consommé was dainty and precise. The old lobster ravioli was there, looking like a little yellow Tardis from the turn of the 1990s but not disappointing that era’s greatest striker, on his first visit to the place. The inherent excellence of pan-fried scallops from Skye and a lobe of sautéed foie gras with figs and bee pollen were fully respected, and Tom enjoyed the slow-cooked egg with jamón ibérico, which the waiter was good enough to inform him was a type of ham they have in Spain.

The cheeseboard was the best I have seen in years, but then I’ve only been going to new restaurants and thus have not seen any. And the tarte tatin, equally rare these days, was a good tarte tatin.

This was my first three-starred Michelin meal in a while and reminded me that while one star can represent a guide to quality of sorts, any further stars signal little more than the playing of an elaborate game that is mostly about having the right shoes and shirt. And if you don’t, it all comes crashing down.

The Observer’s Jay Rayner reviews the Rochelle Bar and Canteen at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London SW1: “The kitchen at this Rochelle Canteen produces the kind of food you like to think you cook at home, but never quite do”

Jerusalem artichokes have been halved and roasted to an almost toffee crispness, alongside stalks of buttered salsify and mature leaves of watercress. All of it is bound together by a slap of vinaigrette emulsified with spoonfuls of Dijon. The other is a play on the Galician dish of octopus and new potatoes, the two softened ingredients playing a game of textural tag with each other. There are handfuls of rocket and a dressing flecked with finely chopped red peppers.

And then a plate of oxtail, braised until the bone is just there as a little bit of light scaffolding. This is the product of hours at a low heat, the dark liquor by turns sweet and savoury, spiced with what could be wafts of cinnamon or allspice or star anise or all three or none of them. Certainly, it’s the essence of what happens when the hardest working part of the animal is taken down low and slow. With this is a celeriac and pickled walnut mash. This one dish is a swinger’s party for consenting ingredients.

Arras York

Flavours, cooking, technique and ingredients at Arras in York are “right on the money”, writes Marina O’Loughlin in the Sunday Times - shame about the decor

Veal sweetbreads, creamy and animal, with tiny brussels sprouts both raw and charred; blobs of opaque, bracing burnt lemon purée; and chestnuts, again raw and cooked, mandolined into Rizla slenderness on the one hand, truffley and slow-cooked on the other. This is so energising and unexpected, it makes you remember why you have taste buds.

Stone bass, the meatiest, firmest slab of white fish, its skin an alluring crisp, comes with tomatoes in all manner of forms: pureéd, powdered, dehydrated. There’s a peppery pesto of nasturtium; on the side a barrel of potatoes boulangère, rich with butter and smoky from slivers of smoked eel, like a gorgeous Yorkshire version of the Swedish classic Jansson’s temptation.

Dear Lord, the decor. Previously much-loved Le Langhe, anyone expecting the predecessor’s bland, woodsy informality is likely to be startled. Stark white walls are plastered with the leeriest murals, street art of the noisiest kind. I ask our charming server how this has been received: “People either love it or hate it,” comes the reply, “I hate it.” From the large glass skylight issues a flood of lurid blue light that does nothing either for dishes or diners: Smurfette is not a good look for me. Pinstriped armchairs look invitingly comfortable, but we sink into them way too far and end up eating elbows bent, four years old again.

Before Arras, if you’d asked if I’d be happy to eat great food pretty much anywhere, I’d have answered, hell yes. Seems I’m shallower than I thought. But I don’t think the environment the duo have created here does their excellent cooking any favours: at best, it’s a jittery distraction; at worst, pass the Rennies.

Grace Dent of the Evening Standard reviews Pufferfish at Mahiki Kensington: “The bouji brigade are all heading there,” she says.

This ES party issue requires that I deliver a Grace & Flavour restaurant that not only feeds, but offers frivolity, a place to flirt and somewhere one might feasibly fall out of come 3am with a lovebite from a minor European royal.

There was only one option. All-new Pufferfish at Mahiki Kensington, a mock-Polynesian raw bar and sashimi palace, open from 4pm, which transforms into an upscale party palace as the evening progresses.

Pufferfish does offer, bizarrely, a supergreen salad that it makes a fuss of mashing tableside and squirting with jizz-like sauce. The seared salmon sashimi with truffle ponzu was dinner’s highlight. The cod tempura in a squid ink-laced batter resembled lumps of coal but were semi-edible. The beef gyoza arrived swimming in ponzu miso. Some spicy yellowfin tuna maki was unlovable. We ordered a rib-eye that arrived with two lacklustre sides chosen from a list of low-effort sides: a bowl of rice and some bok choi that rumoured itself to have once met garlic and oyster sauce.

During the latter part of dinner we began to be ignored, obviously in the hope we’d leave. ‘Can we have the pudding menu?’ I said. ‘There isn’t one,’ a waiter replied, ‘we are, um, experimenting with whether the customers want one. We can make one if you want one.’ ‘Well, I do want one,’ I said. ‘We have sorbet or a chocolate fondant with pandan ice-cream,’ he admitted, sadly. ‘Bring me the second one!’ I said. Forty minutes passed. It was 10pm. No one had ejected us. We could smell the pudding before we saw it. A burnt fondant appeared with a melting inner that felt non-temptingly carcinogenic.

We paid our £185 plus £23 service charge, were given the option to leave another tip, and left, as the music began to blare, before we were ejected. It wasn’t exactly a party, but I’ve been laughing about it ever since.

The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake nearly doesn’t make it to Victor Garvey’s laid-back Rambla in London W1 after a reservation mix-up but is glad she did.

Wine, says our charmingly apologetic waiter, is more their thing: thankfully, this doesn’t translate to a long list of obscure and vowel-less varieties, but an uncluttered sheet of A4 with a few cavas and sherries and a handful of Spanish whites and reds, many available by the glass. Our cortisol levels, however, demand a bottle, plus a plate of whatever the table next door is tucking into, please, because it smells amazing.

This proves a stroke of luck. I doubt I would have ordered the braised oxtail canelones otherwise (though this only proves my ignorance: apparently the independently minded Catalans are well-known for their love of pasta), but I’d guess it’s the most pleasure you’ll get in Soho for a fiver these days.

The same big, rich flavours are evident in a generous bowl of clams and mussels (£7!) festooned with strips of serrano ham and sitting in a white wine and spider crab butter sauce so delicious that, after a small difference of opinion concerning the acceptability of drinking from serving bowls in public, we end up using the empty shells as spoons to scoop up the remainder. Indeed, it’s hard to believe the same kitchen could turn out a dish as exquisitely delicate as the cod sashimi with sweet red pepper, tomatoes and black olives that arrives at the same time: pretty as a picture, but infinitely nicer to eat, this is definitely a polite knife, fork and tweezer for the microherbs job.

Rambla does the classics, too: jamón de Bellota, which seems ridiculously expensive compared with the rest of the menu. Twenty pounds is an awful lot for a plate of ham, however long it’s been aged, but Déu meu, this is good.

As we roll out, still raving about that cannelloni, I spy a rather lovely Italian greyhound sitting politely on a cushion at one of the tables and feel momentarily guilty about leaving the dog at home – before realising this gives me the perfect excuse to return for second helpings. I just won’t bother ringing ahead next time.


ThePilgrm-Ed Reeve

The Pilgrm, located close to Paddington Station, London, has no reception, check-in process or obvious street presence and tiny bedrooms, but Liz Boulter of the Guardian is impressed by the attention to detail

The room is no wider than the double bed under one window, but there’s nothing mean about it. Greenery spills from a wall-mounted planter, there’s a poky hairdryer in a bag on a hook, and the room fills with quality sound when husband pairs his phone with the Marshall speaker. The monochrome, tiled loo and shower are so tiny you have to step out into the bedroom to dry yourself, but towels, toiletries and bedding are sumptuous; I love the little cube of scented soap-on-a-rope by the wall-mounted basin. Magazines on the windowsill – Monocle, Noble Rot, Hole & Corner – are of the highbrow variety.

Jason (Catifeoglou, the owner) is passionate about hotels and talks about honing his ideal model over years of travel, but also about getting his ideas to work in this early Victorian building – making it “beautiful again”. The main staircase, for example, took 300 man hours to restore, and work is still ongoing on limestone and wrought-iron stairs higher up; royal blue tiles in the lobby were inspired by originals found under layers of 1960s paint. Reclaimed materials have interesting provenances: lobby panelling from the mayor’s office in Derby, brass wall lights from an old psychiatric hospital, parquet flooring from an army gym.

En suite bunk room for two £99 room only, doubles from £129