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Let’s be honest – Chiswick has a lot of French restaurants: bistros, brasseries and bars, you name it. On my way to Sam’s Brasserie, just one amongst many in the cosmos of Gallic gastronomy of west London, I lose count of the French restaurants I pass by in the five minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.
All of them seem welcoming enough, and are surprisingly chirpy for a weeknight despite a few empty tables. Hidden within a meandering network of backstreets just beyond Chiswick High Street, I think, how on earth does Sam’s attract enough custom, against so many direct and more visible competitors?
The bustling scene that greets me upon walking in to the smartly furnished and quietly understated brasserie puts an end to my concerns – Sam’s is packed, with barely a table to be found. Clearly, this place is doing something very well indeed; businessmen, families and well-dressed doyens of respectability are all basking in the laid-back vibe. And no wonder – managed by a cheerful, capable and willing team of friendly and knowledgeable waiters and waitresses, the atmosphere is welcoming and the service throughout excellent.
I am keen to see the menu responsible for such a big crowd. Typically for a brasserie – which is, after all, supposed to be upscale without verging on haute cuisine – the ingredients are familiar and homely. The humble cod makes a marquee appearance partnered with a phalanx of clams, pork belly is classically slow roasted, and even a whole rack of baby ribs makes its democratic claim for interest upon the menu.
My starter, lamb’s belly fritters with a smudge of pumpkin puree and salsa verde, is a celebration of creativity that emphasises all of Sam’s best qualities: simple ingredients put together with imagination and attention to detail. Pumpkin and lamb are not flavours that beg to be wedded ‘till digestion do them part, yet the sweetness of the vegetable relaxes the intensity of the medallions. Using a less-well known cut of the animal, there is always something exciting about being prepared a meal that you would not have imagined at home.
My partner enjoys an assured and playful take on smoked salmon, the starter that launches a thousand island sauces and limitless variations. Delicately layered between a salad of pickled cucumber and red peppers, and lightly doused with an unusual caper salsa, which leaves a lingering mustardy tang. Served with wheat wafers, which provides a contrasting texture to balance the softness of the Coln Valley smoked salmon, it is an enjoyable interpretation of a familiar classic: a formula that becomes something of a theme for Sam’s.
Expectations are understandably high during the no man’s land beyond the starter but preceding the main. However, the next two courses are as enjoyable as the starters. The sustainably-farmed cod comes resting regally on a bed of leeks, topped with a quiff of pesto and surrounded by open-mouthed clams. Roasted and tender, I’d recommend the cod as a hearty late-winter treat. The nuttiness of the pesto is an adventurous touch and the chunky slab of fish is succulent and juicy.
Sam’s can certainly do delicate – the wine-list is so refined I’d wager it could play Chopin with a little encouragement – but it is not without swagger. Steak and chips, the culinary equivalent of classic rock, is pulled off with aplomb: the aged rib-eye comes with a trusty sidekick in the form of a shiny metal bucket of crispy fries and a third vessel carrying Béarnaise (peppercorn: rejected). Cooked to perfection, the steak is further proof that Sam’s does the simple things very well indeed.
Dessert is even more laid back – sticky toffee pudding, that kitsch ‘80s throwback, makes an unashamed appearance alongside an assortment of more traditional British and French treats. The waiter informs me with a look of deep regret that they’ve just run out of crème brulee, with a face so aghast he appeared like a librarian with no books… so I turn to the chocolate tart instead, only able to assume that I’d missed something great. Expecting the prosaic, I instead receive the perfect; arriving with a thick shard of honeycomb planted in its centre like a flag, the tart has a fresh, buttery pastry base and a powdery chocolate ganache. The honeycomb adds a much-needed tingly crunch, and a dollop of vanilla ice-cream does the rest. Washed down with a cup of Earl Grey (coffee? At this time of night?), and you’ve got yourself a satisfied stomach. I don’t presume to have visited every brasserie in west London, but I’d claim Sam’s to be one of the very best.
Three course dinner for two and a bottle of house wine, £82. See www.samsbrasserie.co.uk
words Chris Zacharia