Club Gascon is a restaurant I’ve wanted to eat at for quite some time. I worked in the Smithfields area for years, and I often walked past, stopping, intrigued to read the menu displayed outside, and then ambling off back to the office.
If I’m honest, I think I found it a little bit intimidating. The restaurant is housed in a very grand building. The classically attired front of house and waiting staff gathered around the booking desk near the door are just a little off putting to ‘window shoppers’ like me, trying to peer past them into the restaurant within. The menu itself was a little frightening to a younger me too, passionately French but also full of interesting, expensive ingredients and somewhat experimental flavour combinations. To my mind this was posh, grown up dining for city slickers spanking those lunchtime expense accounts. I just wasn’t ready.
Last week, older, grizzled, a veteran of a thousand amuses bouche and with an expanding waistline to prove it, I returned with a confident swagger to Chef Pascal Aussignac’s Michelin starred restaurant. I was there to review lunch for the Great British Chef’s blog and far from being intimidated; this time around I was excited.
For research, I’d been flicking through Pascal’s recipe book, Cuisinier Gascon and a lot of the ingredients and pairings were unusual to say the least. Despite being fiercely proud of Gascony and its classic food heritage, the book also features among other things, a tomato coulis with Fishermans Friends as an ingredient and white asparagus with treacle foam. What with the book along with studying the current restaurant menu, I’d come to the conclusion that the food being served here, in my experience, is unlike anything else in London. And I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s an exciting thought.
Taking a seat, the restaurant was smaller and more intimate than I imagined, but unusually, when compared to other Michelin ‘temples to fine dining’ touches of real character were evident throughout. The bar, adorned with the most incredible and riotous flower arrangement I’d ever seen, was (I was informed by the waiter) put together by Chef Pascal Aussignac himself. Apparently, he does all the restaurant’s flowers. It’s his second great passion after cooking.
I also have to mention the very unusual tableware. Handmade in Gascony, it was absolutely beautiful to look at and I had to fight down a very strong ingrained Essex urge to ‘half-inch’ just a little bit.
Casting my eye around the restaurant, as you’d expect in the city at lunchtime, my fellow diners were a mostly well-heeled, business suited crowd, but not exclusively so. I didn’t for one second feel out of place or uncomfortable in my flip-flops, verging-on-the-obscenely-tight-cycling-shorts and Hawaiian shirt.
There are various menu options at lunchtime. I just had to go for the tasting menu priced at £55, although the ‘Dejeuner Club’ menu (£25 for 3 courses) definitely caught my eye. In actual fact, I might pop back at some point and try that too because it looks like a complete bargain.
A jug containing a ridiculously tall Parmesan crisp was deposited on my table. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these get broken as they’re brought from the kitchen. Nevertheless it was delicious.
Next, a slate containing a curious amuse selection. Due to the combination of the almost impenetrable French accents of the waiters and my rubbish hearing I wasn’t entirely sure what I was eating until later. The Smoked Chestnut veloute was superb, I could have done with a bit more of this. The Peanut ice cream with crispy Pearl Barley was also nice, but I’m not sure the sweetness worked against so many savoury offerings. The Nogoshi Pear dipped in Hazelnut Oil was refreshing, but a bit lost on me. I didn’t really get the Hickory Jelly and Chestnut Powder at all. I thought it just a bit too subtle.
But then everything changed. The most amazing bread I’ve eaten for ages. Served with both smoked and Foie Gras butter. The sourdough in particular was bloody amazing, light but with an incredible crust and an almost smoky flavour. It was phenomenal. Almost as equally amazing, the Brioche rolls had a perfect crisp shell like exterior and almost sweet cloud like texture inside. I could have happily sat there all day eating the bread to be honest. The butter, particularly the whipped Foie Gras version was rather nice, a bit salty with just a hint of flavour from the fatty foie gras.
Sea Urchin veloute, Cauliflower Pulp & Crisps arrived, and bloody hell; it was one beautiful looking plate of food. The waiter, having obviously sized me up straightaway, told me not to eat the decorative grass. The veloute was rather lovely, light, creamy and quite intense. I wasn’t entirely sure about the accompanying crisps. They looked amazing, but as is often the case with fine dining, I wasn’t entirely sure how I should eat them. Dunk them in my veloute? Munch them like giant luxury Quavers covering the table in debris? Combine the different colours to make new flavours? God knows. I took to breaking off pieces carefully and nibbling on them in a dainty fashion. For the record, I believe the flavours to be purple potato, seaweed and scallop. The scallop one tasted best.
Pressed Foie Gras, Gingerbread; Pumpkin & Fir Tree Marmalade was bloody delicious. The subtle spice note of Ginger is a classic partner for Foie Gras and the tangy sharpness of the marmalade cut through the flavours beautifully. Despite being very rich, it really was superb.
With no small degree of ceremony, shellfish bisque was poured over my bowl of squid and saffron-piquillos relish at the table. The bisque was soft and aromatic; the squid beautifully tender, as were the folded sheets of swede taken together with the subtle tang of the piquillos relish. It was altogether a lovely dish, delicate and light. I was intrigued by the addition of tapioca, which gave the bisque a really unusual texture. Something I’ll be messing around with when cooking at home…
Braised Ox Cheek with an Anchovy sauce, pieces of confit Lemon and Avocado Chantilly doesn’t sound like the likeliest combination does it? I started eating, and oh my God, it was amazing. Tender, sticky, intensely savoury, absolutely perfectly cooked. I was lost in the moment, savouring the flavours. What’s that? At this point, somewhat embarrassed I realised that I had been making contented soft whimpering noises to myself whilst eating. Honestly, that doesn’t happen often. This was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten for ages. Loved it.
A pre-dessert White Chocolate cone, with crushed Wasabi Pea coating and a Blood Orange jelly filling was unusual and a good bridge between the savoury and sweet courses.
The following dessert of Red Macaroon, confit fruits in Armagnac and Rose Champagne Jelly was perfectly decent, and a nice light way to end the meal, but perhaps lacked the inventiveness of some of the previous dishes. I think as it was so ridiculously wintery outside, I really was in the mood for something a bit more stodgy and filling.
The petit four however, win the award for some of the nicest ones I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful, served on a crisp edible chocolate shell.
Overall, I really enjoyed lunch at Club Gascon. The service was perhaps a tiny bit more stiff and formal than I’m used to, but that’s to be expected when fine dining in a French restaurant. To be honest, I actually quite enjoy watching real professionals work the room.
The food is obviously very French but despite working within this classic framework, it often veers off unexpectedly on a very experimental tangent. I don’t think I’ve seen a menu quite like it. Pascal Aussignac’s food itself is beautifully cooked and extremely interesting. Yes, a few elements didn’t quite work for me. I’m thinking some of the amuses and the crisps accompanying the sea urchin veloute. But on the other hand the Ox Cheek dish in particular stands out as one of the best things I’ve eaten for a long time. At £55 the tasting menu is pretty good value, but as I mentioned earlier, I will definitely be returning to sample the 3 courses for £25 lunch menu which looks to be a complete bargain.
57 West Smithfield
Telephone: 020 7796 0600
*This was written as a guest post for The Great British Chef's blog, as such I didn't pay for the meal*