GALVIN LA CHAPELLE – IN SPITTING DISTANCE
A week ago or so somebody on Twitter (cheek - I’m not that bloody old) mentioned that they’d had a little preview of the interior of the Galvin brothers gastrodome which hosts fine-dining restaurant La Chapelle and the casual Café de Luxe. They raved about how fantastic it all looked. I joked that I hoped there was some money left over for the food.
Well, they were right about the interior: the main room of the 19th Century Grade II St Botolph’s Hall with its vaulted ceiling, arched windows and huge columns is stunning and I found it hard to stop myself rubber-necking, open-jawed, like some hick tourist. Lower on the horizon there were banquets and acres of napery.
In the café there is a voluptuously curved zinc bar snapped up after the closure of Aurora in the Great Eastern Hotel when it was taken over by Hyatt. A wine cupboard contains enough vintages of Hermitage La Chapelle in various sizes to last one several lifetimes. All very Conranesque. Though not so surprising as one of the brothers, Chris, spent many years working for Sir Tel.
As a rule I’m pretty down on lush interiors. The money for them has to come from somewhere and as other costs - lease, salaries - are more or less fixed that usually means some sort of compromise. And that’s how much of the food tasted and came across as – compromised.
A Lasagne of Devon Crab. Oh dear. A cylinder, the texture of sponge and which tasted of the same. The Crab component ? Undetectable. Chanterelles which although having quite a delicate and subtle taste didn’t shine through at all and were a bit slithy to be honest.
It’s pretty dispiriting when you realise that all isn’t well with the cooking and you’ve still got (at least) another three courses to go. You start looking for exit strategies: feign illness and pay up ? Get completely pissed to anaesthetise oneself against the horrors ? Or do as I did and smile politely and hope for the best. It was like being stranded in a tropical island paradise and discovering the only other woman was a randy Barbara Cartland.
A salad of Partridge and Pomegranate was a good idea, the tartness of the fruit working with the slight gaminess of the bird. But the idea of drowning the whole thing in a thick, sweet, maple-based sauce wasn’t. It killed the taste of everything on the plate especially the little salad garnish. There was a little roasted leg that was good and meaty and crunchy but the dish as a whole was a big misfire.
I had high hopes for my fish course. Grilled Red Mullet with Herb fritters and a bouillabaisse vinaigrette sounded like it could be a classic. Unsurprisingly given the arc of my meal thus far it wasn’t. The two fillets were some of most tired pieces of fish I’ve had recently. Showing few signs of having been grilled, they were soft and smelled fishy. Not good. The herb fritters tasted of fritter and little else. Barbara had now tracked me down and was making come-hither gestures at me.
It might have been a coincidence but after Chris Galvin had gone back into the open kitchen, post the meet-and-greet thing, my next dish was much better. Tagine of Squab Pigeon was a sort of deconstructed version served in a, er, Tagine. The Pigeon itself was moist and cooked a perfect shade of pink. It sat atop excellent couscous, the grains of pasta all light and separate. There was a blob of spiced puree (Chickpea ?) that was a little over-processed but tasted great. A cylindrical brik of, I guess the leg meat, was a bit oily but not disastrously so. The Quail egg was perfectly cooked but superfluous. The accompanying small pot of harissa was terrific.
The Pigeon had restored my confidence in the kitchen enough for me to order a pudding. Prune and Armagnac Parfait did what it said on the tin although in truth it’s never the most interesting of desserts, more of a default choice. Still, it left me chipper enough to roll out the old chestnut about my parfait being “parfait”. Very funny sir, I haven’t heard that one, oh, since I served the last person who ordered it.
I’d like to think the Pigeon Tagine was more representative of the kitchen’s abilities but the flaws in the other dishes were so manifest as to make me wonder whether another visit would yield better.
The transformation of La Chapelle has obviously been a labour of love given the meticulous attention to detail and the Brothers Galvin seem like nice enough people as do the staff who were models of friendliness and efficiency on only their second service. Like any restaurant venture it’s a high risk strategy to put so much into one place but if a recent visit to a packed River Café is anything to go by if you provide people with a decent product they will come. Let’s hope they do.