CAFÉ LUC: BRINGING THE GOOD NEWS FROM GHENT TO MARYLEBONE?
Almost twenty years ago to the day I was on my way home from work when I passed a new restaurant being fitted out for its opening the following week. I went in, had a chat with the owners and made a reservation. Unfortunately, in my excitement I’d made the booking for the same day as the opening match of Italia ‘90. Fortunately, the meal at Cibo was fantastic and the Italian staff kept me updated on the progress of the match.
So what? Well it’s just one example of the basic Dos Hermanos MO which has never changed in many years of eating out. We’ve always loved going to restaurants, talking about restaurants and having an opinion on them for over forty years. Even better is the excitement we get when visiting new restaurants. To paraphrase a man more talented than I:
It's not some game we play
It's in our DNA
It's what we do
I can’t speak for HS but my view has always been that at any new opening there are going to be hiccups, in both food and service, but the experience will probably be as good as it’s going to get. Most places will struggle to keep standards up – though some places do – after that initial period when everyone has an adrenaline high and are super keen, and newspaper reviewers are cluttering up the joint.
Café Luc was just a few days into its soft-opening period when I visited but it didn’t really have the buzz I would expect at a new restaurant. It’s the sister place of somewhere called Café Theatre in Ghent and owned by some rich bloke who also owns Le Pain Quotidien, a branch of which, not so coincidentally, lies just across Marylebone High Street.
The owners didn’t appear to be present though and the disconnectedness of everything: the food, service and general atmosphere, made be wonder if they had just faxed a menu to somebody in London and told them to just get on with it.
It’s a nice enough space as you’d expect from Stiff + Trevelyan although as usual with such places I always start wondering how the owners are going to claw all the money back. All was made clear when I read the menus. Bar snacks (not available when I visited) hover around the £7-£8 mark, starters are mostly in double figures, a Goats’ cheese pizza is the cheapest main at £11.50. Crikey, that must be some pizza.
I should point out that there was 50% off the cost of the food when I visited but future visits would require a well stocked wallet. Mind you I doubt if I’ll be returning: some tough bread and a pot of butter lightly glistening with frost was only the start of a downward trajectory of my meal.
Conscious I’ve not been eating enough seafood recently I decided stay with things fishy for my supper. Just as well as I got a whiff of something fishy as I was served a baked Scallop. It was a big bugger served in the shell which was sealed with pastry. It looked a little untidy outside and was a bit of a mess inside. The scallop hadn’t been prepped particularly carefully and wasn’t the sweetest specimen going and I’ve not sure cooking inside the shell worked for such a large specimen. There was a pale, strip of bacon and some chopped leeks. At a fiver it barely made ok, at full price I’d want the kitchen to put a lot more effort into the dish.
Ditto with the Shrimp Croquettes which slewed comically on a plate that was too large for its cargo. The croquettes themselves were cooked ok with a nice greaseless crust but the filling was too liquid for my tastes. To amuse myself while eating them I played hunt the shrimp. I didn’t find many of the little blighters which might have explained the filling.
Sea Bream cooked on a plancha (it says here) again didn’t smell like the freshest piece of fish I’m ever going to eat. It was a bit flabby and fell apart far too easily. We really have problems cooking fish accurately in this country. The onion compote underneath was ok. Best were the unadvertised bits of squid that had also had the plancha treatment and had that smoky taste that derives from the application of direct heat on cephalopods.
Spinach came with some unwanted cheese. Frites, well, don’t bother. Dull wines, served in funny glasses added to the unease with which I endured my meal: once I’d chomped my way through that scallop I was already to give up on the place.
I decided to soldier on as I was intrigued as to what speculums Ice Cream was. Answer: as ice creams go, not very interesting. The Salted Caramel and the Vanilla similarly shared the same Steve Davis tendency. At least the coffee was decent.
I’m not a frequent visitor to Belgium but during my last trip to Brussels my meals were characterised by competent, honest cooking which while it may not have thrilled had a generosity of spirit which made one feel totally happy to be there.
It was admittedly an early visit to Café Luc but I can’t seem them ever developing that same joie de vivre. Not much good news from Ghent these days.