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the french table, surbiton

 Better than many a table in France, says Clifford Mould

Update: October 2005
Another visit to The French Table was yet more proof, as if it needed it,
of this team's attention to quality dining. 

Outstanding starter dishes we enjoyed included a lively smoked duck mousse, (£6.80),  served with a croustillante of confit duck and what looked like some girolles to add even more flavour. The roast wood pigeon (£7.80) was a game fancier's delight, and the mussel timbale (£6.20) was delicately flavoured with saffron and coriander and came with cauliflower cous cous and mild curry spices.

The main course pork belly has become a Trilogy of Pork Belly (£14.50) and went down well with young Jeff, now a year older and even more sophisticated.  All the meat dishes came with powerful, dark reductions and their own carefully chosen vegetable garnishes.

The treat of the evening was the hot Pear William soufflé (£4.95), the flavour and texture was a heavenly marriage.

Regular readers are no doubt tired of my diatribes about the dumbing down of standards of some restaurants in France. Of course there are notable exceptions, but we have been disappointed on too many occasions during the past couple of years. A bowl of gritty soupe de mer in Collioure was the prelude to some very ordinary cooking;  duck confit that needed a decent burial was only one disastrous course of many in a pretty riverside hotel on the Seine at Coudebec. Nothing could have been more embarrassing than a recent visit to Mollard in Paris with my American culinary arts students. It's still a museum piece of Art Nouveau, but the cooking is at an all time low.  I could go on - and on, but I'll just mention the lovely lunch we had at the newly refurbished Le Channel the other day in Calais. We were there for the usual: a quick rush round Dave West's emporium Eastenders, where we got some Guigal Rhone Valley wines at bargain prices. Then next door to Wine and Beer World (owned by Majestic Wine) to pick up a case of Argento Malbec for only £1.99 a bottle. Finally to Perardel, the wine warehouse owned by the Champagne house of the same name, where the selection of good Burgundy is very tempting

After that we need restoration, and where better than Le Channel, where Madame Crespo always has a kiss on each cheek for her favourite customers (that's almost everyone as far as I can judge). Her husband is the chef, and her son the bright and bushy tailed sommelier. The seafood is wonderful - but I'm straying from the point, we're supposed to be considering The French Table in Surbiton, Queen of the Suburbs and erstwhile home of the Good Life. 

The French Table is on the site of a once famous restaurant, called Chez Max,  whose chef patron was the formidable Max Makarian. After he retired it went sadly down hill until a bright young chef called Anne O'Carroll gave it a new incarnation as Luca. She'd been sous chef at Peter Gordon's Sugar Club, and although we loved it, her wilder fusion ideas were just a bit too far out for Surbiton.

The restaurant was then taken over by Eric and Sarah Guignard in 2001, who reopened it as the French Table. Their menus, (and their prices) seemed to hit the spot with Surbitonians. I've been several times, and on my last visit I was a guest of some friends, so I had to be rather discreet about reviewing it. The style is modern French, the presentations are unfussy but very attractively laid out on a variety of interesting ceramics. The cooking is thoughtful and creative and reflects the experience that Eric must have gained in the five Michelin starred establishments he has worked in, in France, Italy and here in England. 

The Ballotine of Foie Gras with figs and toasted brioche was classic - I've not eaten better since Bourdin left The Connaught. Very fishy, in the nicest possible way, was the red mullet soup with deep fried oysters like mines lying in wait to surprise you. Seared marinated salmon was fresh and tangy and came with avocado ice cream, an ingenious touch that actually worked: (I'm sorry Luca, but Surbiton seems ready for this at last)! Starters ranged from £5.50 for the soup to £9.20 for the foie gras.

Three out of the four of us had the Caramelised Pork Belly (£13.80) for our main course. It came wrapped in parma ham having been squashed into a tight circle in a ring mould. The accompanying layers of black pudding, gruyere cheese and apple were hardly  a millefeuille, but they added a lot to this very yummy and rich dish. My host was tucking in to his rump of lamb (£14.50),  deliciously pink slices on a bed of raisin, almond and mint  enhanced cous cous, finished off with a kick of rose scented harissa sauce. Other main dishes I would go back for included roast monkfish wrapped in parma ham (was ham on offer that day at the market?) with a ragout of monkfish cheeks (sounds wilder than Luca!), or what about roast veal with fresh tagliatelle, broad beans, ventreche, girolle mushrooms and truffle emulsion. Talk about blinding us with culinary science! I bet you don't know what ventreche is? Answers on a postcard please to  Sorry Eric, I'm only pulling your leg - your cooking was truly excellent, and I haven't even got to the puds yet... But I should mention, en passant,  that the wine list is also excellent and well priced. Try the Picpoul Pinet if you like an individual, aromatic white.

The puds were fabulous - looked beautiful, tasted wonderful - can't exactly remember what they all were, except that mine was a lovely light mousse made from lightly caramelised passion fruit and a coconut sorbet on the side. Our waitress oozed Gallic charm, and the wine list had some excellent wines at sensible prices. If this place doesn't get recognised by the Michelin Men pretty soon, I'll eat my hat, on a bed of saffron infused ratte potato and haddock gibriche - sorry, that goes with the cod, not the hat.

By the way, I hear that people are driving out from Fulham, no kidding!

Clifford Mould, September 2004

the french table - 85 Maple Road Surbiton KT6 4AW, tel: 020 8399 2365
Open for lunch Weds-Fri noon 'til 2.30pm £15.50 three courses, Sunday lunch £16.50
Dinner Tuesday -Saturday 7pm to 10.30pm 

PS we were celebrating my godson Jeff Wilkinson, who got about 2 million A's and A stars in his GCSE's
PPS Lynn Truss says it's OK to put apostrophes after initials. Have you tried eating shoots and leaves?

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