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"... slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails..."
Clifford Mould revisits L'Escargot, London W1

pic of snailThere has been a restaurant in this fine Georgian Soho townhouse since the mid twenties. In earlier times snails were actually cultivated on the site, hence the name. Outside over the front window is a charming plaster figure of the original proprietor riding a snail. To this day there are always snails on the menu somewhere, but don't worry, you won't find the over garlicky ones swimming in parsley green butter!

In the 1980s the place was put very thoroughly on the map by Nicholas Lander, now restaurant critic for the Financial Times. Since 1993, L'Escargot has been owned by Jimmy Lahoud. When we first reviewed the downstairs brasserie exactly two years ago, the head chef was the exceptionally talented Garry Hollihead who earned the establishment a coveted Michelin Star.

The downstairs dining area used to be called The Brasserie. Upstairs is the smaller, rather intimate Picasso Room, and there are two other rooms available for private parties. Now the two main dining rooms are merely referred to as the Ground Floor Restaurant and the First Floor Dining Room

The ground floor is both comfortable and striking with dramatic lighting and colourful modern pictures. The chef is Billy Reid and his a.l.c. menu offers a choice of 12 starters all of which cost Stg 6.70, (25p more than two years ago!) followed by 13 main courses at Stg 12.95, (a massive hike of 45p!!) except for scallops and venison which both have a two pound supplement. Desserts cost a fiver each. All of which sounds like extremely good value to me.

Upstairs, the Dining Room is more intimate and very sophisticated - there is a superb collection of works by Picasso, from autographed prints to fine ceramics. I was glad we arived early enough to be able to walk round the room and enjoy them. The cuisine in the Dining Room is in the capable, but still young hands of Andrew Thompson who was one of Hollihead's protégés.

Thompson offers a prix fixé dinner menu for £45.00 for three courses. I started with a veal trotter stuffed with black pudding. The trotter was tender and gelatinous and the black pudding was spicy. It came with rather a good gribêche - a salad of parsley and chopped hard boiled eggs moistened with white wine.

I encouragd my host to have the obligatory escargots. This time they appeared in a tartlet with wild mushrooms and a poached egg whose yolk ran all over the place. I managed to cadge a mouthful and it was apparent that this was the yummiest possible thing you could do with snails! We also tried the terrine of duck confit and foie gras, a dish where flavours and textures were at once contrasting yet harmonious.

These were all excellent starters, but the showstopper was the Assiette de Thon where a number of clever things are done to daisy fresh tuna. There was a delicious chunk of seared tuna fish - like a juicy morsel of sirloin steak. Then there was Thon Tartare - the French version of sashimi where the cut is perhaps a little more generous. The pièce de resistance was a cylinder of fish wrapped up in a spring roll, cut across the bias and stood up on end like an obelisk. All these fishy bits and pieces were perfectly arranged to make the prettiest of pictures.

With all this we drank a bottle of the 1998 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (£26.00). This is arguably New Zealand's most prestigious white wine; it has the most concentrated flavours of gooseberry fruit and flinty structure. The sommelier is Stass Zeljko, a charming and devoted wine enthusiast from the former Yugoslavia, somewhat of an advantage since he has no particular chauvinistic axe to grind. Zeljko's list is wide ranging, and although it is based firmly on the French classics, there are representatives of some of the most distinguished New World wines, such as a vertical of Grange Hermitage from 1960 to 1993. With our main courses we stuck to New Zealand and one of the best young Pinot Noirs I've ever tasted. This was the 1996 from Dry River which costs £62.50 but it was well worth it for such a high ecstacy factor!

Main courses included a fillet sea bass (a trifle overcooked I was told) with a crab sauce spectacularly edged with a brilliant green olive oil infusion (at least that's what it looked like from where I was sitting). A juicy Bresse pigeon was served properly pink all wrapped up in finely sliced Alsace bacon plus a luxurious foie gras raviolo. An assiette d'Agneau made creative use of contrasting lamb offerings including meltingly tender tongues that spoke soothingly to the palate. There was a very Provencale accompaniment of rosemary infused tomato and aubergine.

Last Wednesday's plat du jour was "classic cassoulet", which I couldn't resist trying. It came in what the restaurant cynic might describe as a rather twee little copper saucepan, but I'm no cynic and I found it an unexpectedly charming touch. What was inside was certainly not twee, but a full grown, hairy chested oaf of a cassoulet, the sort of dish that Gascon rugby players have for their tea, as it were. The beans were soft and had absorbed the duck fat. The pork was juicy and jellified. The flesh of the confit duck leg was dark and comely and it fell off the bone with voluptuous ease. The saucisson was spicy and slightly chewy - you need something to get your teeth into. A very naughty touch was the addition of a whole lobe of panfried foie gras, but who could possibly resist such an indulgence! I should probably have been drinking a rich, peppery brooding Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but I was still entranced by the dazzling freshness of the Kiwi Noir. This was a great combined gastronomic experience.

Pudding after such an onslaught seems rather de trop. But our fish eater managed a lovely light prune and armagnac soufflé which also came in a copper pan. A little box, perfectly square - a chocolate cadeau no less - impressed me greatly as my own success with arty chocolate couverture has been a total failure so far! The puddings did look very good indeed, but I'd advise you to fast for 48 hours before visiting l'Escargot if you want to make the best of them!

It's nice to able to report that the excellent traditions of the house continue to be upheld, but that tradition has not been allowed to become a bar to progress. Service was pleasantly smiling and attentive without being over zealous. I'd recommend l'Escargot for a private treat, though your business guests ought to be most impressed with your good taste!

November 1998

Price guide:
Ground floor:

  • Menu du Jour available lunchtime and pre theatre: £14.95 two courses, £17.95 for three.
    A.l.c. Starters £6.75 Mains £12.95
  • First floor: £42.00 three courses - plus discretionary service charge of 15%

L'Escargot, 48 Greek Street, London W1
Tel: 020 7437 2679


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