LAUNCESTON PLACE: A LUNCHTIME BARGAIN
Quite often, I receive e-mails from friends asking me to recommend the ‘best bargain” in London and, just as often, I receive a quizzical reply to my response that it is lunch at Le Gavroche, one of London’s oldest temples to fine dining, rather than one of our ethnic eateries.
It may seem odd to recommend a meal costing just shy of £50 as a “bargain” but it truly is one of the best opportunities to experience one of the great restaurants, with that price covering everything from the moment you enter the door to the moment you leave filled with three courses of wonderful cooking and cosseted by the legendary service.
The set lunch at high-end restaurants is one of London’s undiscovered treasures and also a way to secure a spot at some of the hardest to book tables in town. So, when my good chum, Nick asked me to suggest a place for lunch, my thoughts turned to Launceston Place, recommended to me by a number of people for its daytime menu of three courses for £18.
The restaurant itself needed no introduction. During my years at Penguin Books, it was an all too regular haunt when schmoozing clients. The food was “polite” as HP calls it, rather than memorable and service was charming and discreet, which it needed to be given that Princess Diana was regularly to be seen pushing her food around the plate while dining in the company of an elderly Lady In Waiting.
That was in the 90’s and less than a year ago, this now tired old restaurant was rescued by the D&D group (Conran to you and me) its room given a sparkly new makeover and the kitchen put in the control of former Petrus wunderkind, Tristan Welch.
Nick, being a man who actually has to work for a living, was running a bit late, so I occupied myself in the small bar area with a couple of newspapers, a glass of wine and more than one helping of some terrific onion crisps with a cheddar cheese dip. By the time Nick finally burst through the door looking flustered and apologetic, it was almost 2.30pm and fast approaching the end of service. If this put the staff out one little bit, they did not show it and we were given a lovely table in a room that shows where every penny has been spent.
The lunch offers three choices in each course and our amuse appeared quickly in the form of a small cup of delicious celeriac soup with slivered almonds and hazelnut oil. Just good enough to overcome my strong dislike little cups of something as an amuse.
Our first courses appeared a little too quickly particularly when one of them was a Spider Crab risotto, but first tastes of both that and a Cobb Chicken Terrine showed that this was a very able kitchen. The terrine was served at the perfect temperature and, like all good examples should, had a variety of textures and perfect seasoning. A little slick of slow poached egg yolk added a touch of richness to the dish. The risotto had the deep flavour that only comes from a great stock and the little slick of herby garlic butter on top added an extra burst on the tongue.
Main courses too, were exemplary. My own slivers of smoked bacon fell apart to the touch and although the accompanying braised onions were covered in a sauce that shows a youthful love of foams and fancies, the overall dish was a perfect combination of Autumn flavours. Nick’s choice of Venison casserole too showed a good seasonal touch. Nick stalks deer himself and can gralloch them to boot, so his sucking the bone clean of meat and marrow spoke volumes about the enjoyment of his choice.
By now, the restaurant was empty but for us and still the staff remained unflustered as we sat in the declining Sunlight through the window and finished our glasses of a slightly undistinguished Qupe Syrah. a light pre-dessert of caramel crème topped with little nuggets of bonfire night toffee came as we waited for our shared dessert, a Tarte Tatin. What was presented was as pleasing example as you are likely to find in London with a slightly chewy caramel topping, apples; sharp, soft but still holding their shape and a crispy, flaky pastry base. Nick, who spends enviable chunks of his time in France, declared it as good as he encounters there.
By the time the staff finally lost patience and suggested we move to the bar as we lingered over cups of tea, it was time to get the bill anyway and Nick, being Nick picked up the tab. Without the wine, our bill would have come to about £25 a head including service. A veritable bargain for three courses, amuse and pre-dessert of very good cooking indeed and served with charm.
It may just be that Le Gavroche has some competition next time someone asks me to recommend the best bargain lunch in the capital.