Petite Maison comes to Mayfair

Saturday, August 04th , 2007

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The food critics in print have gone out of their way to slaver over La Petite Maison, the new venture in Mayfair that aims to reproduce Nice-style fare with a hint of celebrity attraction. The room is undeniably bright and airy and I found the service fine. The food itself relies on bistro classics, such as onion tart (pictured) and this is in itself is fine. After all, few of us want gourmet exotica every night. However the huge difference between the Riviera and here is ingredient quality, and it shows. On the Riviera you can delight in the beautiful salads, vibrant vegetables and ultra-fresh seafood. It is exceedingly hard to get produce like that in London, and here they do not even try. Prawns were pleasant, chicken of decent quality, but vegetables were ordinary. Yet with a medium priced wine the bill still came to £90 a head for what is essentially pleasant, ordinary bistro food. Chefs have recently become acutely aware of how profitable it is to appeal to the public's "mid range" tastes. The most obvious example is the difference in fortunes between the now defunct but ambitious cooking of Antony Demetre's Putney Bridge, which always struggled financially, and the huge success of his far simpler, high throughput Arbutus, which is coining it. Tom Aikens has seen the same thing at Tom's Kitchen. My only concern is that these bistros are not as cheap as one might imagine, and I long for someone to actually show a bit of ambition and open something that aims a bit higher in London. After all, the economy is still booming, so why has there been no attempt at Michelin level cooking in the last few years except for Tom Aiken and Atelier Robuchon? Are all London chefs really so conservative? Surely there is room for really top cuisine that aims at the stars (Michelin ones in this case) as well as mid-range places with high gross margins?

I was impressed by my last two meals at Le Gavroche, most recently in May 2007, and so returned this week. The service tonight was flawless, the sort of level I normally associate only with top places in France, but the food was just a little below the level it achieved in May. The strength of Gavroche has always been its desserts: the Roux brothers practically introduced serious French desserts to the UK, and their recipes have been the backbone of most serious UK restaurants for years. Tonight a perfect passion fruit souffle was a fine example of classical French cooking technique: light and fluffy, with great depth of passion fruit flavour and a white chocolate ice cream poured into the top of the souffle as a bonus. Similarly a chocolate croustillant dish was similar to a famous version at 3 star Louis XV in Monaco, and was only a little below this in quality. Both were very fine dishes indeed, worthy of a 3 star establishment. Similarly the cheese board is unusually good for the UK, with a waiter that understands cheeses rather gazing furtively at a card for the names, as sometimes happens at lesser places. The weakness of Le Gavroche for me has always been an inconsistency in its execution of starters and main courses, which are appealing and should be great, but are not always. This happened tonight with a langoustine dish with langoustines that were definitely overcooked; not chewy, but distinctly past optimal - just the kind of minor slip that you do not wish for in a place at this level. Interestingly, my wife's scallops were very well timed tonight, whereas on a previous meal I had found them (in the identical dish) slightly overcooked. Albert Roux Jr is a charming and talented chef, and I just wish he could instill slightly better discipline into the execution of the starters and main courses here. Consistency should be a watchword of a 2 star Michelin level establishment. I want to put these niggles into context lest I sound churlish - this was an excellent meal, and Le Gavroche may be the best restaurant in London right now, but these slight issues on the early courses are a chink in the armour that you would never see in a top French 2 star place like Les Ambassadeurs in Paris.

At the cheaper end of the spectrum we had another good meal at our regular The Brilliant in Southall. This is in fact an example of remarkable consistency in execution - no matter how many times I eat here I never encounter an overcooked prawn or a chewy piece of chicken; it just doesn't happen. Tandoori prawns are tasty and well timed, and methi chicken has a wonderful thick, rich sauce redolent of fenugreek and other spices. Chickpeas here in the form of aloo chollay are tender, and the bread here is vastly improved now that they they make proper romali roti (pictured being made). We had enough food not just for tonight but also for the following night, and with drinks the bill was still £25 a head. In effect this is half that price given that it the food was more than sufficient for two meals. After some of the bills I have had in the last couple of weeks this made a very pleasant change.

Finally, just a small restaurant obituary. Sabras has operated in a godforsaken location in Willesden for 33 years, and despite its spartan surroundings Hermant Desia has consistently produced the best vegetarian Indian food in London. The difficult location has meant that the place always seemed to be hanging by a thread, and it has now finally been forced to close due to a rent rise. This is a real shame, and I hope Hermant will consider re-opening in a more receptive location where customers will be more grateful for what they have on their doorstep. Hint - Chiswick lacks a decent Indian...