December 5, 2008

At long last, I finally had a really good meal in a brasserie.

Unfortunately, it’s not a place I’ll be going back to anytime soon, however, because Le Cafe Anglais is in London, not Paris. For anyone who’s curious about how the great Paris brasserie tradition could and should be resurrected for the 21st century, I’d highly recommend this place, since its only consistent flaw is ratty service–everytime she poured our wine, the waitress spilled it, so that by the end of our lunch a pretty pattern of pale pink dots and splotches had been applied to the white linen. And of course the other problem was that 500 centiliters of Rasteau cost a preposterous 24 pounds (roughly $40).     

But the menu here by chef Rowley Leigh, who does the excellent cooking column in the “Weekend” section of the Financial Times (my favorite weekend read) and who also runs the popular Kensington Place restaurant, is one of those line-ups that induce a tiny panic–they’re just so many things that sound good, that it becomes almost impossible to decide what to have. Among the hors d’oeuvres, a nice term to come across instead of the infelicitous “small plates,” were fennel salami, burrata, monkfish cheeks with cauliflower, and breaded sweetbreads with bearnaise sauce, all things I craved. But finally deciding on the fairly priced lunch menu (three course for 19.50 pounds, $34), I loved my airy homemade cheese-glazed gnocci with trompettes de la mort mushrooms, while my friend Sue raved about the pumpkin and sage risotto. Of course, neither of these dishes are what you’d expect to find on a brasserie menu, and that’s the point–it really is time for Paris brasserie owners to bust open their menus beyond the usual oysters, onion soup, and steaks. 

A great example of what I’m certain would work in Paris is that Le Cafe Anglais proposes a different roast daily. We both went for the Welsh lamb, and it was cooked pink, generously served, and garnished with delicious creamed spinach, to which we added a side of pommes Anna. These finely sliced potatoes cooked with lashing of butter so that that they develop a crispy golden crust at the bottom of the pan are a sublime French classic that’s almost never seen in France anymore, and this was one of the best renditions of this blissfully buttery potato dish I’ve ever had.

Le Cafe Anglais is also a very pleasant space in which to have a meal. The long rectangular room–curiously enough a part of the Whitely’s shopping center in Bayswater–is a handsome, sunny space with pretty art-deco style chandeliers and an open kitchen, and to add an extra twinge of pleasure to the situation, it occupies the premises of a former MacDonald’s, wonderful proof that sometimes the mad clown can be sent packing.

We finished our meal with perfectly aged Fourme d’Ambert (a nice creamy blue) with frisee salad, and walking through Kensington Gardens after lunch, I decided the two main reasons this place works so well are that there’s true pride of cooking in the kitchen and also a sincere effort made to source excellent local, seasonal produce.

Now if only I could take the crew from La Coupole to London on a field trip to see what might actually be done.

To be fair, I did recently have an unexpectedly good meal at Le Cafe du Commerce in Paris, a real old-timer brasserie in the 15th arrondissement that was taken over a few years ago by a dyed-in-the-wool Auvergnat with a real passion for good food. The meal I had was dead simple–oeufs mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise) and a steak of Limousin beef, but the beauty was in the details–free-range eggs, meat of truly superb quality, real frites, good wines served by the carafe.

So maybe my recipe for a brasserie renaissance would be a mix of Le Cafe Anglais, with its smart and delicious comfort-food menu, and the Cafe du Commerce, which serves such an admirable and affordable take on simple, old-fashioned traditional French food. Oh, and let’s add a good dose of the Huiterie Regis in Saint Germain for good measure, since this cheerful little spot is serving the best oysters on the Left Bank these days, pours great white wines by the glass at very fair prices, and is supremely hospitable.

Le Cafe Anglais, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2, Tel. 44-207-221-1415

Le Cafe du Commerce, 51 rue du Commerce, 15th, Paris, Tel.

Huitrerie Regis, 3 Rue Montfaucon, 6th, Paris Tél :