I venture to the wilds of Croydon to try Le Cassoulet

Saturday, February 16th , 2008

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Croydon is not well endowed with high end restaurants, so Le Cassoulet should be a welcome addition to the culinary scene there (up to now a Pizza Express would seem the height of sophistication). This is the offspring of Vacherin in Chiswick and, since Malcolm John lives in Croydon but commutes to Chiswick each day, this must have been a welcome break from the commuting. The head chef has been transplanted from Vacherin, and the bistro formula, even down to the decor, is kept the same. The food is broadly the same standard, other than the odd glitch that will no doubt be ironed out in due course. Even the bread comes from Chiswick, due to an apparent dearth in decent bread suppliers in Croydon – who’d have guessed?
I last went to Quilon soon after it opened over eight years ago. It is firmly at the posh end of Indian restaurants in London, but is unusual in that it concentrates on south Indian cooking from the coastal areas. There was much to like about the place: excellent service, home-made chutneys, good bread and some enjoyable dishes, though I did not find the dishes entirely consistent in standard. The chef seems a thoughtful man who cares about what his customers think, even to the extent of switching from farmed to wild sea bass after reading my review on this site this week. Prices are not as egregious as at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, but even so my general level of bewilderment at Michelin when it comes to ethnic cuisines continues.
I had also been to Atelier Robuchon soon after it opened. This is a successful formula with branches in several major cities now, though I find the one in Paris delivers better food than the London operation. The meal seemed to be a high-profit operation using fairly cheap ingredients, distracting from this by use of pretty (see picture) or in some cases just flashy presentation (in one instance with dry ice). Yet although technique was good, some dishes seemed to me ill-conceived, with some heavy-handed sauces. Most of the diners around me seemed happy enough, but this is not somewhere that I think offers good value for money.
By contrast Royal China in Queensway offers tremendous value. It is a restaurant that Alan Yau acknowledged in a recent interview had single-handedly raised the standards of Chinese food in London, and other than Mr Yau’s own superb Chinese ventures (Hakkasan and Yautacha) I still find that it sets the bar to which others must aspire. Dishes such as the simple steamed gai lan are simply superb, a triumph of technique. Other dishes may not be in quite this league, but are still ably executed and remarkably consistent. The decor still looks like a 1970s disco, but the perpetual queue to get in reflects the quality of the cooking.
I hope you all had a good Valentines’ day this week, a night when restaurateurs rub their hands in glee at the thought of all the people who eat out rarely but will pay anything to impress their dates and spouses on this evening (but not a couple of days before or after). I chose not to add to their coffers and cooked instead. I ended the meal with the chocolate mousse from the Roux Brothers cookbook, which I have to say tasted a lot better than the one I ate at Atelier earlier in the week. The Roux brothers desserts are a lot of work, but the results are worth the effort.
I was sorry to hear this week of the premature death of Bill Baker, a larger than life wine expert with whom I had drunk many fine wines at the weekends he used to run regularly in Gidleigh Park.