Wednesday, 16 February 2011
Les Deux Salons
40-42 William IV Street London, £50 pp
In the Great Greasy Gourmet International Cuisine Derby, the French have it by a nose.
Theirs is the only cooking that pervades our cultural consciousness to the extent that it has become memetic, the French bistro or brasserie– all red and white and menu du jour and vin de table – is a universally shared false memory.
The food is both pompous and peasanty, rich, hearty and clever. We all know the dishes; escargots, coq au vin, cassoulet, beef bourguinan; they are food as Platonic Ideal.
The Italians come close, but the use of olive oil rather than animal fat lets them down. The Spaniard can do clever things to a pig, the Japanese to fish. Closer still is American fast-food, a deep-fried buffalo wing smothered in hot sauce is a tasty mouthful indeed. But it is a base modern equivalent: yes it is food for the people and the ingredients are cheap and plentiful, but there’s nothing in its head.
And herein lies the secret to the French success. You can think of any raw ingredient, any primary food product, and there’s a country that does it better than France. Their cuisine has evolved out of necessity. Both the alchemy and the inclination required to elevate the snail to the status of a national dish are attributes peculiar to the French, and neither could exist without the other. Nobody does the addition of fat, salt and heat quite like them.
The menu at Les Deux Salons is a joy; andouillette and off-cuts and all soaked in the memory of unspeakable things done to geese. But this sets an ambitious pace, as these are dishes we have all eaten a million times in our minds, and reality is always going to suffer by comparison.
So much here is right; the décor is a tasteful fin-de-siecle take on a classic brasserie, and the wine list, pretty much all of which is available in 250ml carafes fuels a buzzy atmosphere.
We kick off with the least French thing on the menu, a special of scallop tartare with lime and pickled ginger. When it arrives the ginger has been withdrawn from the card and substituted for some coriander, which probably worked better and made a delicious light dish spiked with lime in the form of caviar-like balls.
Mother’s pork belly was good, flavourful and nicely layered, but not I thought as heady and hedonistic as it should be. A little like a reconstructed chop.
My own veal shin was braised to perfection, soft but not sloppy, and served simply with some greenery. There was definite potential here, and at the least it would have been very nice if it hadn’t been so extravagantly over-seasoned as to make it almost inedible.
I plumped for a carafe of Spanish Monastrell off a list that is better than the website’s. It was intensely typical of the variety, and absolutely lovely. It did wear its ‘naturalness’ rather aggressively though, which left a muddy feel in the mouth and a thick black sediment in the carafe.
Cocktails were well made, though I’m pretty sure my Daiquiri involved Tequila, and absolutely certain they put a glace cherry in it. Neither are were offensive moves, but both a little weird.
Les Deux Salons is a welcome addition to theatreland; maybe the waiters are a little too charming but generally they’ve got the Frenchy bit nailed pretty well, all the way down to the inevitable slightly over-priced, slightly disappointing food. And in the end that’s all they really need.