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Le Comptoir Gascon, London EC1

A wonderfully unpretentious taste of rural France

I'm really enjoying this current movement towards robust, rural regionality, featuring carefully sourced local produce which also takes advantage of the changing seasons. Here in London, right opposite Smithfield Meat Market, is le Comptoir Gascon, which specialises in food and wine exclusively sourced from the South West of France. Le Comptoir is owned by Vincent Labeyrie and chef Pascal Aussignac, who also own the immensely popular Club Gascon, Cellar Gascon and Le Cercle.

It's a relatively small space, with rough hewn honest wooden tables, plenty of exposed brickwork and, of course, the counter to one side where there is a marvellous display of rustic breads, sophisticated patisserie, country cheeses and seductive chocolates. Shelves on the opposite wall are groaning with cans of foie gras and bottled vegetables, as well as wines from the SW French regions with names like Saussignac, Pacherenc and Irouleguy. It's rus in urbe, par excellence.  Dining in the Deli has become quite the thing recently - we enjoyed ourselves last month at Carluccio's new Caffe in Esher, which also has a well stocked Italian version of the same idea. 

The menu is simple and written in a kind of restaurant Franglais, with essential French names and words linked by English conjunctions. Who could resist the English translation of Charcouterie (£6.50) into "Piggy Treats"? We couldn't, though billed as one of several plates "to share", they could have madesharing easier in practice. But breaking your bread together on the wooden table top is all part of the fun, as was fighting over three plump steamed oysters snuggling warmly under round blankets of tasty crepinette stuffing (£4.50). The Piggy Treats including some drop dead gorgeous ham as well as various types of sausage, and it fills you up, so watch out!

Rather like Club Gascon, the menu is divided into departments Vegetal, Mer and Terre. The difference is that the dishes are much more rustic and filling. This time we settled for Terre, in deference to the Market opposite. Perhaps when I return, which I definitely will, I shall try Mer dishes like the grilled squid with a barley and tomato confit (£11), or Piquillos and brandade de morue, (also £11) made from that wonderful dried salted cod you see hanging up outside shops in Perpignan.

The Terre selection includes the famous Cassoulet Toulousain (£12), Duck confit £10), and Seven hours cooked lamb shank! (£12). However, we thought it would encourage chef Laurent Sanchis, if we went for two dishes from his daily blackboard. They came out with alarming swiftness, given that piggy treats need time to settle in the tummy. 

My friend is  very English about certain things and prefers his meat bien cuit with only a hint of pink. Somehow the French can't quite bring themselves to agree with such heresy, and his duck was quite rosy, which suited me since he was more than usually generous with the bits he passed for me to sample. My slow cooked oxtail had been taken off the bones and came pressed together gently on a bed of mash, not quite a parmentier, but more honest and very delicious.  We had a side order of Piperade Basquaise, marvellously rich in flavour and texture, and, oh dear, a plate of hand cut chips fried in goose fat. They were spectacular, but I did wonder if I was going to make it home in one piece afterwards. After all that, we only had room to share one little tarte au citron. It was sheer perfection: wobbly custard with a glossy sheen cupped in the shortest, crispest pate sucre.

Even more good news: all the wines on this small but characterful list are available by the glass: so we tried two whites, the aromatic and classic dry Irouleguy from Xuri Dansa and Alain Brumont's fruitier and also slightly sweeter Gascogne AC. The red Cahors Cosse Maisonneuve was dark and brooding and went well with the heavy meats.

This is a place I could hang out in most happily and to be frank, it was better than many an excursion to many a similar bistrot in France itself. Dine Online Highly Recommended.

Clifford Mould, October 2005

Le Comptoir Gascon

61-63 Charterhouse Street, London EC1M 6HJ

Reservations 020-7608 0851

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