Hors d’oeuvres from £4-5, Starters from £6-16, Mains from £14-27, Desserts from £5-7; set weekday lunch menu at £16.50, plus Sunday brunch & lunch set menus
Not your average mall dining
I first came across Le Café Anglais (LCA) before I really knew what it was. We were walking through Whiteleys, the London mall located on Queensway, and I saw a restaurant at the other end of the floor that the cinema is on. I peered through doors and thought it looked a bit too new and nice for the location (it somehow just didn’t fit in with its surroundings), but the menu looked rather appetizing and was certainly broad-ranging. It touched a nerve, but alas, these were the days before I was a food blogger, so I didn’t have a clue that the Chef Proprietor was none other than Rowley Leigh – a stalwart of the London food scene – and therefore didn’t give it too much thought after walking away and moving on to whatever else we were doing that day.
A few years later, I eventually realized that a place I had been reading a lot of good things about, which was located on a posh-sounding street called Porchester Gardens (and not in Whiteleys!), was none other than the same restaurant. Then, after seeing Chef Leigh in person at the Starter for Ten (Chefs vs. Critics) quiz show that was part of the London Restaurant Festival, and realizing that he really knew his stuff – both about cooking and the history of food – I decided I must get myself to his restaurant, and pronto.
Thus the scene was set, and we invited one of our good friends, Mr. S (who has made guest appearances before on this blog), to join us for the occasion. There was a bit of a kafuffle with our arrival. I had driven there and dropped off my two dining companions at the small street-level Porchester Gardens entrance, where you can take a lift up to the restaurant. I pointed up at the restaurant, saying that it was on the first floor. Well, my normal maniacal attention to detail had slipped, and as they instead decided to enter through the mall (much less glamorous, darling), they couldn’t find the place…because it’s located on the second floor. They called me during my nearly half-hour expedition to find a parking spot and I tried to explain to them where it was. They eventually got there and were seated, but it took me ages to get back. I arrived flustered and a bit out of sorts, but eventually everything got rolling.
As a colleague from my office might say, the dining room is well impressive. And it is. It’s hard to believe that a McDonald’s used to reside in the same space. There is a very interesting article that Chef Leigh wrote himself in the FT in November 2007 just before the opening, which explains the vision and process of setting up the restaurant, and it is well worth a read. He will tell you in far greater detail, but in essence, they have managed to capture a number of the lovely design features of famous Parisian Brasseries throughout the dining space and it makes for a bright, airy, buzzy and very comfortable place to eat. I also love how they have honored the original art deco features of the building itself. It all works together seamlessly and is very classy. If you are interested, there are some photos, plus a video where Chef Leigh gives you a tour of the restaurant and kitchen on their website here.
Where to begin…
The menu is certainly ample, some might say portly, and offers a number of pleasant surprises all the way from the hors d’oeuvres (which precede the first courses) right through to the desserts. There is a lot to take in, plus there are a few first- and second-course specials each evening with the à la carte menu. I have to say that the waiters answered our questions knowledgeably and professionally and, with a little assistance, we had made our choices.
My late arrival meant I had missed out on a few little nibbles, but I did manage to snatch a red radish, which was fresh and got me in gear to begin this affair.
There was also a single piece of bread left – gee, thanks guys – so I made a quick grab for that too, and enjoyed it with a bit of butter. They were both very nice but not extraordinary. 7/10.
I seem to be in quite a fishy mood this year, so I decided to go for one of the pasta dishes that contained langoustine. It arrived hot, colourful and with a nice aroma. The pasta had been cooked perfectly al dente and the tomatoes were sweet and fresh. The langoustines were also cooked well and the dish benefited from a touch of mint throughout. As my wife says, mint is one of those wonder ingredients, like garlic, and it certainly did the trick here to add a little bit more interest. It was a very more-ish plate of pasta and my tummy was ready for more. 7/10.
My wife “Loved [her] whole dish. It was a great selection to open your appetite and was served with blinis, fresh cream and capers. The smoked salmon was excellent, most probably a gravlax, as it was fresh, delicate and not over-smoked. The pickled herrings were my favorite, with their sweet and sour marinade, and reminded me our time in Sweden.” 8/10.
I am a complete novice when it comes to oysters, but Mr. S is certainly not. He had been deliberating between getting the rock or native oysters (£8 versus £16.50 for six, respectively) and eventually opted for the rock ones given that they seemed to be such good value. They were served in the traditional French manner, from what I understand, with a nice dish full of shallot and white wine vinaigrette in the middle. Mr. S is not in the habit of sharing his food, so I didn’t get to try them, but he said they were some of the best rock oysters he’d had. High praise indeed, though I’ll refrain from giving it a numerical score as I didn’t taste them myself.
Sticking with my ichthyoidal theme, I chose one of the specials of the day for my main. It was a very simply cooked Dover sole. I opted to have it deboned (I am one of those people who is slightly thick when it comes to eating fish, and Mrs. LF always rolls her eyes when she sees me hopelessly failing at what should be the simple task of removing fish bones), and it was presented in a simple and nice manner. The fish itself had been cooked very well: it was soft, delicate and perfectly intact. My only quibble would be the absence of a significant sauce (I am used to having sole with a bit of a buttery and/or vinous sauce), but that said, it was certainly very good, and well ahead of other examples I’ve had cooked in this simple fashion – i.e. the sole that Mrs. LF had at Hereford Road recently, which lacked inspiration and was overcooked. 7/10.
I should also point out at this stage that the 500ml carafe of 2007 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru ‘Les Combes’, Marc Colin (£42) that Mr. S and I shared was exceedingly good, and certainly complemented my main course of sole very nicely.
Mrs. LF said of her main course: “This is a dish that I make myself at home, and I really enjoy it as it is very comforting and satisfying. So, when I saw it on the menu, I went for it. Maybe you think it silly to go for something that you can prepare yourself at home, but since becoming pregnant, I have become a bit of a ‘freak eater’ and have gone off meat, preferring to stick to what I know I’m going to like. Anyway, this pasta dish was very strong in flavour with the garlic, parmesan, chilli and anchovy coming through well. The spaghetti was cooked al dente and had the perfect thickness. But after a while, I found that the strength of the anchovy overwhelmed the dish and made it very salty, too salty in fact. Otherwise, I thought it was very good considering it wasn’t mine . One small complaint is that because I had asked for this dish as a main course (it is normally a starter), I thought they should have made the portion size a bit bigger than what they served me.” 7/10.
Mr. S was quite intrigued by a very exotic-sounding dish which caught his eye on the menu. It was explained to us that this was a dish inspired by the Alsace region of France and, given that Mr. S loves partridge, sausage and Les Alpes, it was a done deal. Again, no samples were offered to his friends, but he seemed to be in his own world with this course, only coming out of his solar system occasionally to tell us how good it was. So another winner for him, which unfortunately can’t get a score from me as only his mouth had the pleasure of consuming it.
Being American, I had no idea what a ‘Queen of Puddings’ was, but I was certainly intrigued by it when I saw it on the dessert list. The waiter explained that it was a breadcrumb and fruit base topped with meringue, and it sounded good to me. I was fairly blown away by the simple deliciousness and beauty of this little rectangular box of joy. Very British and very good. The breadcrumbs were mixed with a lovely jammy fruit – memory fails me but I am pretty sure it was peach, and if not it was apricot (I really should take notes!) – and the meringue was perfect on top, adding a sugary sweetness and a crunchy counterpart to the rather gooey innards. I really enjoyed this ‘royal’ pudding and would certainly have it again if I went back. 8/10.
What did Mrs. LF make of her très French dessert? “The pears were nicely poached and had the right consistency. But the pears’ flavor was a bit too mild and could have done with some kind of marinating beforehand to bring out the flavor a bit. The vanilla ice cream was creamy and tasty. Overall it was a good enough Poire Belle Helen.” 7/10.
Being the mountain climber, skier and lover of Mont Blanc that he is, it was a foregone conclusion Mr. S would be ordering this very typical French dessert when he spied it on the menu. He said it was very good, and it was certainly presented in a cute and attractive fashion. But, sadly, no score for you, mont amour.
The evening was topped off with a very decent little cup of espresso, and we couldn’t have been a more contented table.
It does what it says on the tin
I had high hopes for LCA, and I certainly wasn’t let down. Let’s make no mistake about it, this is not a restaurant that is gunning for lots of Michelin stars and it is not trying to impress diners with avant-garde presentation that will wow with style and uniqueness. Rather, LCA is a restaurant that has been lovingly created with a clear and very personal vision. It brings together the best of French brasserie ambience and cooking with classic British produce and influences.
From the half-open kitchen, from where Chef Leigh can survey the entire dining room, to the visible spit-roast, to the little design details throughout that you notice through the course of the meal, to the actual layout of the room – with distinct dining areas that are arranged in different manners, including some beautiful leather banquettes – this is a very grand backdrop for a good meal. On our visit, all of the dishes we had were well-executed, and I would guess that the other items on the menu would have been too…no mean feat given how many dishes the menu actually contains. Service was good, but not memorable, as we had more than two waiters looking after us throughout the meal. However, they knew their products and were generally friendly.
This is certainly a safe bet for when you want a nice meal but don’t want something with too much fuss and extravagance. The owners have created a nice little world within the rather odd home of Whiteleys, and once you’re there, you feel comfortable enough that you don’t really want to leave.
Wine: The wine list is mostly French, with a few token Italians thrown in for good measure. It is not a long list, but it is pretty well chosen. One nice feature is that a few wines from each region are offered by the glass, small carafe, large carafe and bottle.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Le Café Anglais, and it was for dinner.*