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.