Les Deux Salons
I made two food-based resolutions for 2011:
- Stop eating out so much.
- Eat steak tartare.
The first of those isn’t going so well but I applied myself to the second much more whole-heartedly. Various candidates were proposed – the third floor of Smith’s of Smithfields, Le Pont De La Tour and The Canton Arms – but eventually I settled on Les Deux Salons. This was for three reasons: its pedigree, its decor and its bouillabaisse. Les Deux Salons is from the same people as Wild Honey and Arbutus, both restaurants on my ever increasing list, and it certainly looks the part of a French bistro: chrome, leather banquettes and aproned staff. Hard to believe that not too long ago it was a Pitcher & Piano. The presence of fish soup becomes important when one’s dining partner is a pescatarian and strangely refuses to show any interest in raw meat. Luckily Les Deux Salons have a plat du jour and Friday is bouillabaisse night.
So, steak tartare. N looked slightly askance at its arrival but I was relieved to see it was already prepared so all I had to do was add a few cornichons to my plate and break the yolk perched on top. In terms of taste, I had no idea what to expect but it was something like picnic lunch rolled into one. And it rolled together wonderfully; the sharpness of the capers against the depth of the steak against the creaminess of the egg. By the by, I asked the internet why my yolk was such a beautiful dark orange and the internet said because the chicken that produced the egg had AIDS. Thanks, internet.
N had salt cod brandade with fried squid and parsley cromesqui (a cromesqui is a mini-croquette traditionally made with caul fat, although hopefully not in this instance). It was a prettily presented and well-balanced dish, the squid set off by the richer flavour of its ink, the brandade mixing together everything good in the world: “I could guzzle this but I am going savour it.” Admirable restraint. When N cut into the cromesqui, it exploded with bright green parsley sauce as vivid as gloss paint but, alas, its contribution to the plate was solely visual. She followed this (as I’d hoped) with the bouillabaisse.
This was presented in its constituent parts: a pot of stock, a pan of fish and vegetable, bread, aioli and rouille. To say the stock was fishy is a ludicrous understatement. I instinctively cringed away from it; N ladled it into her bowl, remarking of the lovely pouring action of said ladle. She said she couldn’t possibly have eaten the stock on its own as a soup, it was so amazingly dark and bitter that it had to be tempered by the fish, leek and fennel but these elements managed to hold their own within the potent broth. Despite having had bouillabaisse in Marseilles, N felt like she was having the real deal for the first time: “I feel like a proper French.”
My main of ox cheeks was not as successful as my starter. Whilst the meat was well cooked, I wanted it to be more unctuous and the flavour more toothsome. The accompanying salsify was as blandly tuberous as a yam and the watercress and bone marrow salad had a head-clearingly sharp greenness but no evidence of marrow. Perhaps this was lost to the dark, sticky liquor at the bottom of the pan which, whilst delicious, didn’t leave any available surface to try and keep the components of the meal seperated. Sides were excellent though. Daulphinois was the Platonic ideal of a gratin and braised endive with orange and juniper almost made me believe that that particular vegetable wasn’t put on Earth as a practical joke.
Puddings were a disappointment (I always say this). I virtually forced the rum baba on N on the grounds she is a rum loving woman. Unfortunately, it was rather stodgy and the flavours too disparate. And I only had myself to blame for ordering something called “floating islands with pink pralines”. This was, in fact, one island; a pink mousse that tasted somewhere between Flump and a Barrat’s Nougat Bar. It floated on a sea of creme anglais which was probably the best bit, the mousse itself being altogether too bizarre and insubstantial.
£60 a head including service (three staff, three styles, all excellent), fizzy water (natch), a glass of Innes & Gunn (the sweetness of the beer going perfectly with the sharpness of the tartare) and a glass of Welcombe Hills (a light, extremely floral white from – believe it or not – Warwickshire). Beforehand we had a couple of drinks at 5th View, the bar at the top of the huge Waterstone’s on Piccadilly. It very nearly does everything right but manages to just fall short across the board.