I’m hardly a closet Francophile. Most who know me have long since dropped the pretence of listening to my diatribe about how the French have a much better handle on work-life balance than we do in the UK.
According to the OECD’s annual survey “Society at a Glance” the French spend more time eating than any member nation on earth without suffering from a national obesity problem.
My ample reflection in a shop window makes me wish to drop everything and head just a few miles south to spend time with people who know how to live and, in particular, eat.So when the opportunity came up to review a French brasserie in one of the West End’s enclaves, I jumped at the chance.
Charlotte Street has been at the centre of this favourite watering hole for decades and has a lively and inviting village feel with its eclectic mix of pubs, bars & restaurants. It serves locals, office workers and the foot-worn of the nearby shopping haunts, all of whom make the street bustle with life.
Brasserie Blanc Charlotte Street is positioned in a typical Georgian terrace with a narrow frontage but surprisingly deep floor plan. The main restaurant is on the ground and first floor with a private dining room on the second. The brasserie gives a nod to its French counterparts with wood-panelled walls inset with bevelled mirrors lending the restaurant a sense of space. In common with many modern brasseries, there is precious little further reference to the glamour of the belle Époque. Instead, the interior has been modernised with dark teal paint and stained wooden surfaces have replaced the ubiquitous starched white table cloth.There are a range of booths and inviting nooks as well as separate tables giving diners choices for sitting comfortably. My companion and I did not feel cramped, nor could our conversation be overheard.
We were warmly welcomed and the service was excellent with water, olives and freshly made sourdough bread offered shortly after we sat down. Raymond Blanc’s influence is obvious from the menu and the a la carte looked fantastic. Both of us could have chosen from many of the entrée and plats – a good precursor to a return visit! There are the obligatory range of steaks, all chargrilled 30 day dry-aged Cornish heritage beef with a choice of sauces and accompaniments. There is also a prix fixe menu and a couple of specials on a board. The menus change seasonally.
While we made our choices we tried a glass of the house sparkling Blanc de Blancs which was light and elegant but perhaps a little on the sweet side for our palates. Our server said that we would probably have preferred the Prosecco. He was probably right, but I had wanted to try their new house fizz.
I started with a fillet of beef tartare (£9.90). Often made at the table, this was served as a completed dish – it is a brasserie, after all. Perhaps I should have taken more notice of the bottles of tabasco and Worcestershire sauce placed on the table since although the beef was undeniably gorgeous, the dish presented was lacking in flavour. Steak tartare can be a wonderful dish but the ingredients have to be carefully balanced since there is no cooking to cover any shortcomings. Leaving the customer to add sauces begs disaster. As it was I changed the texture for the worse and just made the beef hot yet still lacking in flavour.
My companion chose the baked cheddar cheese soufflé (£7.80) which was served in a small pan with a cheddar cheese sauce on the side. The soufflé was wonderfully light in texture with a good topping but was again lacking in flavour. A seriously strong cheese sauce could have improved this but that served seemed to add little to the dish.
For mains, I chose the roasted pork belly with chateau potatoes, poached crab apples and crackling (£16.00). The pork was well cooked, juicy and retained its flavour although the crackling was more reminiscent of a large scratching and didn’t really add to the taste or texture of the meat as I had expected. The apple sauce cut the richness of the pork nicely but although not tart, the crab apples were a little too firm and their flavour hadn’t fully developed. The potatoes were buttery and melted in the mouth and the cabbage gave a crunchy texture to the dish.
My companion chose the seasonal special – roasted pheasant breast with slow cooked vegetables and chestnuts (£18.50). The pheasant had no obvious lead so had probably been reared and not blasted from the sky. It certainly had a delicate taste beautifully set off with the chestnuts and the light sauce from the cooking juices and was very much to my companion’s liking. The slow-cooked seasonal vegetables were a little bland but artistically arranged. The delicate flavour of the pheasant was not overpowered by the vegetables or the sauce.
We asked our server for a recommendation to go with both the pheasant and the pork and he suggested a pinot noir – a 2011 Bourgogne from Ropiteau, which was not yet on the wine list. This was a really excellent choice with elegant fruit and mineral notes on the nose and rich fruit and spices in the mouth. It is not overpowering but a well-balanced wine with a long finish that partnered both the game & pork very well.
We still had a little room for dessert and my companion chose the mousse fromage blanc which is served chilled with poached autumn berries and an orange and almond tuille. (£5.90) The mousse was fresh to taste, had a wonderfully light texture and was deliciously smooth on the tongue. The poached berries retained all their flavour which burst in the mouth.
I chose the special – triple chocolate (£6.50) a masterpiece made with Valrhona chocolate – with a crunchy chocolate topping and a mousse or delice consistency in the body of the dessert. The distinctive dark, smoky notes of the Valrhona coated the insides of my mouth and was heavenly. As Mort Rosenblum (Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark on Light) says; “good chocolate is the Valentine’s Day drug of choice, has more antioxidants than red wine, and triggers the same brain responses as falling in love.” …. and Valrhona chocolate is very good chocolate indeed.
Overall we had a very enjoyable evening. The location is great, the new fit-out looks good and works well and the staff are knowledgeable and very pleasant. Prices are reasonable and although the a la carte is not cheap, you can get a 3 course dinner for £16.95 from the Prix Fixe menu. The service throughout the meal was excellent. We were given a warm welcome and au revoir and the manager said he would take our comments on lack of flavour to the chef.
words Peter Bond