Restaurant review

La Trouvaille, Le Vacherin, The Food Room People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 23 August 2006

LA TROUVAILLE, London

In the 1920s, Howard Johnson had a brilliant idea. On the growing network of US motorways he created a chain of identical restaurants. Monday’s ‘special’ in Massachusetts was the same as it was in Virginia, and New York’s steak and chips was the same size, texture and price as Ohio’s. Though the food was of a pretty high standard for this sort of operation, Johnson knew what was most important, what made him a great success: he wasn’t selling food, he was selling reassurance.

Widely copied, his idea was dumbed down and exported. Now we’re unsurprised when the Hard Rock chain goes into the hotel business and ‘renovates’ classic European properties into bland, minimalist identikit Eurotrash bins. Globalisation turns out to be barely virtual reality.

One nice bump in the smooth road to homogeneity is an independent, chef-owned neighbourhood place that’s worth a detour, offering quality, value and, most importantly, character. (As a professional eater, I appreciate that in these places. There’s no unnecessary tweaking of the food, or show-off high-rise garnishes.) These are the real food heroes.

La Trouvaille has trundled along for a while as a charming, slightly quirky bistro featuring the robust cooking of southern France, augmented by a good selection of the same sort of wines. Now the owners have taken over the building and set up a wine bar on the ground floor and a small but casually elegant restaurant upstairs.

Much of the produce is free-range or organic. Rare-breed Galloway beef and savoury Herdwick mutton are especially worth trying. Ingenious seafood exerts quite a pull, too. Whiting was featured recently, matched with Comté cheese and a lemon-leek combo, only outdone by a casserole of freshwater fish in red wine with new potatoes.

Next week I’m going back for the pork filet and trotter ragout, if I can find someone to share the guinea fowl stuffed with tomato and aubergine with baked beetroot (and who won’t be upset if I don’t share the ginger crème brûlée.) Lunch is £18.50 for three courses, dinner £33, both amounting to serious bargains.

Big food demands big wines and they abound here, mostly from southern France and Corsica – Syrah heaven. There are also other new-style (often obscure) blends, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. Among the reds try Château Simone’s Palette, a southern French blend of finesse and density, Clos Boste’s intriguing Tannat-Cabernet from Madiran and wines from Domaines Trevallon and de la Rectorie. For refreshing but offbeat whites go for Alain Brumont’s Gros Manseng or Domaine des Lauriers’ Picpoul de Pinet.

The wine list of 50 bins is well annotated, though a bit over-enthusiastic, but many of the wines deserve it. Half are less than £30, with many by the glass.

LE VACHERIN, London

There are namesakes and namesakes but this one’s the real deal. For four months every winter, chef-patron Malcolm John serves up that glorious, unique cheese, redolent of resin and wild grass, in a variety of ways, most often baked whole, to be spooned up by happy eaters in gregarious harmony.

The rest of the time, Le Vacherin is simply a splendid brasserie, with a menu that skips around France, cherry-picking a range of regional highlights: slow-cooked brochette of duck hearts and gizzards with orange sauce; confit pork cheek and choucroute; supreme of halibut with crayfish and lemon-parsley sauce; baked eggs in red wine and bone marrow sauce (with frites), all sharply executed. A three-course lunch is a reasonable £21, and dinner is £35 without wine.

The main wine list of 50 bins-strong, is French, good value, and mostly from central and southern France. Languedoc, Roussillon, Gascony and Bergerac lead the way, with a few bottles from Burgundy, Alsace and Bordeaux for the less adventurous. There’s also a delectable dessert list, with a nice selections of sweeties by the glass to match.

Le Vacherin, 76-77 South Parade, Chiswick, London W4 5LF. Tel: +44 (0)20 8742 2121; fax: +44 (0)20 8742 0799. Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch, and seven days a week for dinner.

THE FOOD ROOM

The décor is understated (shades of beige) but the name’s true: the food’s the star in this comfortable, casually charming place. It’s the London pied-a-terre for chef-owner Eric Guignard, who runs the French Table in Surbiton, another winner. The food is southern country French, enlivened by chorizo, fava beans, tomato and bold sauces. There’s good rustic southern French wine, especially red, but also a terrific international fine wine list, featuring Musar, Phelps, Caymus, Phelps, Duck Pond, Avignonesi, Plantaganet, Charles Melton and choice Bordeaux at reasonable prices.

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