Club Gascon opened in Smithfields in 1998 and gained a Michelin star in 2002, which it has retained ever since. Its head chef is Pascal Aussignac, born in Toulouse, and who trained with Parisian chefs Guy Savoy and also Alain Dutournier at Carré des Feuillants. He moved to London when he was unable to get financing for a restaurant in France. He also co-owns Comptoir Gascon in Charterhouse Street, Cigalon and Baranis in Chancery Lane, the now closed Le Cercle and the Chip and Fish in Stratford and also in Leeds. Club Gascon focuses on the food of the south west of France, so expect to see such things as duck, veal and foie gras on the menu. There was a five course tasting menu at £75 and a seven course one at £110 in addition to the a la carte, and a three course restricted choice lunch menu at £39.50.
The wine list was heavily, though not exclusively, French, with an emphasis on the south west of France. The listed started at £29.50 and went up to £390, with for example Chateau Montfin Corbieres Le Blanc 2015 at £34 for a bottle that you can find for £9 in the high street, Herault Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 2014 at £76 compared to its retail price of £34, and Chateau Bouscasse Vielles Vignes 2007 at £82.50 for a wine that will set you back £28 in a shop. There were posher bottles at more modest relative markups, such as Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault 2007 at £187.50 compared to its retail price of £120, and the gorgeous Leoville Las Cases 1990 at £390 for a wine whose current market value is £322.
There was an initial nibble of cheese biscuit with a truffle flavoured cream filling, which was very pleasant. The biscuits were crisp and a decent level of truffle flavour was discernible (14/20). An amuse-bouche of white bean puree with pork crackling and tomato did not have much flavour at all, though the pork crackling was pleasant (12/20). Bread was bought in from The Bread Factory and was fine.
A starter of “cep pie” with wild mushroom and parsley oil (according to the waitress there was also tarragon and a sauce of black garlic). This dish was not what I was expecting. I had imagined a pithivier with ceps inside a pastry case, but what arrived was a roll of mushrooms rolled into a sausage shape, garnished with ceps, girolles and trompette mushrooms, as well as crisp kale as a garnish. The dish was enjoyable, and the mushrooms had good flavour, the contrasting textures of the mushrooms and the kale pleasant (14/20). However it was disorienting to call this a “pie” when it clearly was no such thing. Black pudding “cappuccino” with lobster and asparagus was essentially a broth. This had tender pieces of lobster and tasted of black pudding, with the asparagus usefully balancing the other flavours (14/20).
Braised veal sweetbread came with “tagliatelle” of cuttlefish and lobster sand. The sweetbread itself had good flavour and texture, carefully cooked. The cuttlefish in the shape of pasta is hardly an original idea (Pierre Koffmann did this a long time ago) but worked nicely, and the crumb flavoured slightly with lobster gave a contrasting texture (15/20).
This was far better than turbot with oxtail sauce, rhubarb and dill vinaigrette and some fried polenta cubes. Before I discuss the dish permit me a brief excursion into restaurant economics. A restaurant obviously charges more than the cost of the food, since it has to pay the rent, staff, utilities etc. A well-run fine dining restaurant typically operates with food cost of 25-28%, so in order to break even will need to charge around four times the cost of the ingredients. This turbot portion was tiny, and to add insult to injury came from a 1.5 kg fish i.e. a very small turbot indeed. With turbot, bigger is better in terms of flavour, and the price reflects that, with larger specimens selling for twice the unit price of tiddlers like this. I discussed this dish in detail with some chefs after the meal and they estimated the pure food cost of this dish to be no more than £4 given the tiny size (around 100g) of the turbot portion. Hence if the dish had appeared on the menu at about £16 or so then that would be OK, but it was actually priced at £36.50. The turbot was cooked all right but unsuprisingly had very little flavour, which is what you might expect from such a small specimen. The oxtail sauce with it was quite good and well reduced, and the rhubarb added acidity to balance the rich sauce, the dill flavour also coming through, the polenta being rather tasteless but harmless. Hence the design of the dish was fine, but the use of a very small fish meant that it was never going to taste great, and to then serve a very small portion seemed just mean (12/20 objectively but I would never order this again due to tasteless turbot and the price).
Pineapple soufflé came with lemongrass and ginger sorbet. The soufflé itself was fine but there was an unannounced disc of charcoal on the top, which apparently was “for colour” but seemed to me just odd. A layer of charcoal also encased the sorbet, and this was simply distracting. The sorbet had good flavour and texture, and the pineapple soufflé was refreshing and well made, but I would have scored it higher if the unwelcome guest of charcoal had simply not turned up (14/20). My dining companion has a pretty dessert of apple with frosted “shizo”, by which I assume they mean shiso, along with violet and liquorice as well as some edible flowers. The liquorice and violet flavours were a touch dominant to my taste, but this was nice enough (14/20). Coffee was from a Nespresso machine, and several choices of pod were offered on a dedicated coffee menu.
Service was mostly quite efficient albeit rather aloof, though towards the end of a fairly quiet lunch service it became difficult to get the attention of the staff. They started to huddle at the far end of the dining room, and when I tried to order a coffee I felt like I was wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Waiters walked by, I waved at them, but nothing happened. My dining companion went off to feed the parking meter and by the time he returned I had still failed to order a coffee. Finally I made one last attempt to wave at the clutch of waiters at the far end of the room, gave up and phoned the restaurant. The phone at reception duly rang, our waitress picked up the phone and I asked if she would mind popping over to our table so we could order coffee. To her credit she remained entirely unflustered by this, and I should emphasise that the sommelier was very friendly and capable. Still, this isn’t quite what you expect in a starred restaurant. The bill, with a half bottle of wine and one glass of dessert wine between two, came to £98 a head. If you shared a modest bottle of wine and had three courses and coffee then a typical cost per head here might be £95, which seems to me a lot of money for what appeared on the plate.
Further reviews: 10th Nov 2010