Le Vacherin underwent a major refurbishment in the summer of 2007 and the new look is a lot smarter and cosier; the restaurant name now includes the chef/patron’s name in its title. There is leather banquette seating with a strip of mirror running along the main wall. An assortment of mainly French posters adorns the walls, and there is a new wood floor, with a layer of soundproofing to avoid the noise becoming deafening; there are 72 covers at full capacity. The sense is still very much of local bistro with dishes to match, and white paper tablecloths on top of linen ones. Lighting is much improved. The wine list is all French and has also been developed, stretching to eight pages and featuring a good section from the south-west of France e.g. the admirable Mas de Daumas Gassac 2005 at a fair £45 (retail price £18.68), Iroulegny Andere d’Ansa Vignerons du pays Basque 2005 at £25.95 (rather more marked-up less given it is £7.49 retail) and a few selections under £20. Etienne Sauzet La Garenne 2004 was fairly priced at £75 (retail price £34.20).
What follows are notes from my most recent meal.
The lunch menu offers three courses for £16.95. Bread was from the good supplier Boulangerie de Paris (an improvement), and is served warmed up. Sausage Morteau (a smoked pork sausage from the eats of France) was served with apple, beetroot and lentil salad. The sausage itself had plenty of flavour, and the salad was fine in itself, though the dressing with it was unbalanced, needing more acidity (14/20). Chicken liver and foie gras parfait was well seasoned and had good taste, though covered in a surprisingly thick layer of fat relative to the parfait. This was served with salad leaves with the same over-oily dressing, radishes, cornichons and nicely toasted brioche (13/20).
Pot roasted red-label poussin was capably cooked, the meat moist, garnished with a sprig of rosemary and served with a rosemary jus. On the side a gratin dauphinoise was less good, being rather oily (13/20). Aged rump steak was properly cooked and had meat of reasonable quality, served with bone marrow and rather soggy pomme frites (13/20).
Tart tatin was good, made with Braeburn apples and properly caramelised but not over-cooked as so many version of this dish are; given that Braeburns were used rather than a sharper apple, the dish would have been better if some additional acidic element was added, as the overall effect was a little cloying. Still, I enjoyed this dish (15/20). I was less impressed with a petit pot of chocolate pot I tasted, which had a grainy texture (12/20). Coffee was quite good (14/20). Service was fine.
Below are notes from a meal in November 2007.
Bread is just slices of white French bread, from Sally Clark; I am not convinced about this bread, but it was decent enough. A soup of Jerusalem artichokes with foie gras had robust flavour; this vegetable is excellent for soups (15/20). A little dish of haddock worked well with a mustard sauce garnished with chives; an egg cocotte was served on the side, which for me would have worked better as an integrated dish (14/20). Scallops with black olive ravioli were Scottish scallops and were plump and sweet, lightly seared. The ravioli with the scallops was technically fine, but the black olive is such a strong flavour that it rather overwhelmed the scallops (13/20, higher for the scallops themselves).
Cep risotto was carefully made, with good chicken stock and a generous serving of lovely ceps (15/20). Sea bass was line-caught and tasted it, well timed, served with baby girolles, brown shrimps and a bed of diced tomato, the fish resting on a bed of spinach. The spinach was a fraction on the watery side but the girolles were excellent. I’m not sure the dish really needed the extra, slightly salty shrimps (14/20). Chips were thin and good, though perhaps they could have been a little crisper (13/20). Green beans were nicely cooked (13/20).
Cheese was better than I was expecting. St Maure was particularly good, avoiding the chalky dryness that so often afflicts this cheese in restaurants. Munster was also ripe, as was Vacherin and Camembert. Tonne de Savoie was in good condition, while Epoisses was in that enjoyable state between unripe and over-ripe that so many restaurant cheese boards fail to time right (16/20 for the cheese board, supplied by H&B). The cheese was served with more white bread, good figs, biscuits and a little celery.
To finish, tarte tatin had nicely caramelised apples and puff pastry that, although bought-in (hardly any restaurants make puff pastry, as it is a real pain to do), was at least rolled out well and had light texture (16/20); this was served with good vanilla ice cream in a little tuile. Coffee was pleasant, served with a few nice chocolate truffles (14/20).
Overall this was a vast improvement on my previous visit, and Malcolm John comes across as a man with genuine passion about his establishment, chatting with regulars towards the end of service. On this visit I encountered none of the service blips which I had found previously.