There seems to be a mood now among London’s diners that, if they are going to splurge, they would rather feast on simple food in a comfortable setting than on a dozen courses of pseudo-Scandinavian minimalism in some spartan gastro-temple. Witness the success of upmarket burger joints, steakhouses and even glitzy hot dog emporia.
I suspect that another current trend – bistros and brasseries deluxes – also owes something to the zeitgeist: after all, classic French food has been smart London’s default comfort food ever since Alexis Soyer first wielded a pan at the Reform Club in 1837. While the British have traditionally mocked our neighbours’ penchant for garlic, snails and the legs of amphibians, London’s gourmands have always enjoyed the rich sauces and harmonious flavours of la cuisine ancienne.
I like a good snail – well, a dozen of them, for preference – and the garlic butter that invariably accompanies them, for which the baguette may well have been invented. But the “snails bourguignon” at the new Brasserie Chavot (first picture), on Conduit Street, are a different thing altogether.
Half-a-dozen snails are paired with little meatballs of roughly equal size, then cooked in a rich tomato sauce and topped with potato espuma (foam). It is a lovely starter, like a light shepherd’s pie (or parmentier), and a typically inventive dish from the eponymous chef/patron Eric Chavot, who has made a welcome return to London after a few years in Florida. His new home is half belle époque, half art deco, with glittering chandeliers, a mosaic floor and beautiful dark wood chairs upholstered in classic brasserie red.
Duck à l’orange was once a Franglais farrago of dodgy poultry smeared with marmalade and stock from a cube. In Chavot’s hands, it is a crisp-seared pink breast of an estimable young duck paired with caramelised chicory and a Grand Marnier sauce: superb.
For traditionalists, there is also a fine steak tartare, excellent charcuterie, Cinco Jotas Ibérico ham, oysters with crépinette sausages and some very indulgent puddings: try the café liégeois, a sundae glass brimming with coffee, chocolate and cream.
Another recent discovery is Otto’s on Gray’s Inn Road, a bistro so ancienne in style that, after a couple of glasses from the superb wine list, one might easily assume the Bardot posters on the walls are from films on current release. Here, snails were encased in light beignets with parsley and garlic butter; hare was slow-cooked with game jus and foie gras; and the excellent tarte Tatin served with calvados cream. Cuisine de confort, indeed.