This Soho eaterie was packed to the gunnels this evening, suggesting that the French bistro formula has strong appeal. The décor was carefully in line with expectations: tiled floor, wooden tables, cream walls, black and white prints. Diners were spilling out onto the pavement, and tables were being turned at an impressive rate. The wooden floors meant that the noise level was almost deafening, but the crowd, mostly 30 something girls on a night out plus the odd couple on a date, seemed unflustered by the disco level of conversation volume required (I may be showing my age now).
The menu could not be more classical if it tried, with red mullet escabeche (£12), calves liver and bacon (£15) and chocolate marquise (£6) typical examples. Bread was just slices of baguette, which was appropriate in this format. The wine list is entirely French, starting at £15, with selections such as Faugeres Domain des pres Lasses 2005 at £32 for a wine that costs £8 retail, and Mersault Vielle Vignes Domaine Bocard 2005 at £55 for a wine that costs around £24 in the shops.
I began with fish soup, served with croutons, cheese and aioli on the side. The key to fish soup is getting enough fish flavour relative to the stock; often a watery disappointment can ensue, but here the soup flavour came through well (14/20). This was much better than smoked herring with potato salad, which suffered from a fairly minimal serving of over-salted herring (11/20). My main course of chicken with peas and bacon (and a few carrots) was pleasantly cooked, though the chicken did not have much taste (12/20). Puy lentils (£3.50) were a little dry but decent enough, while thin chips would have been better if they were crispier.
Salad Nicoise (£12) had the correct elements and decent dressing but suffered from the use of tinned anchovies and tinned tuna (11/20). A crème brulee had nicely made custard but there was an excessive use of the blowtorch on the crust, which had moved well beyond crisp (13/20). Peach melba was an unusual take, more of a Sundae, with vanilla ice cream, raspberry juice, lots of cream and reasonably ripe peach lurking at the bottom of the glass (12/20). Other than the cheap ingredients (tinned tuna?) the food mainly delivered on its simple theme. Portions were certainly generous.
Service was better than I might have expected, with a friendly, attentive waiter who was genuinely friendly (and genuinely French). A bill of a fraction under £70 a head, with no coffee and a solitary bottle of wine, is for me the only real issue here. The atmosphere is good, the service fine, but ultimately this is very simple food at a price that means you could have something a lot more ambitious, even in this area, for the money.