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Malmaison, London EC1

The area around Smithfield Meat Market is a haven for foodies

London so often surprises: discreetly tucked away amidst the hustle and bustle of city life lie hidden architectural gems. A stone's throw from the Barbican is one such, the elegant and leafy cobbled courtyard of Charterhouse Square, seemingly from a bygone era, complete with gas lamps and imposing Victorian buildings. In one corner is Malmaison, a byword in all things luxurious. This small hotel group, much acclaimed for its emphasis on originality of design, combined with lavish surroundings, has an atmospheric bar and brasserie that's open to the public. Ceiling spotlights cast shadows across vaulted walls creating a stylish mood in this tastefully chic, dark and white wooded room.

We were warmly welcomed before being shown to a spacious table. The menu, attractively bound in smart, black, crocodile casing, commenced with ten starters. There was a smoked duck and confit cep carpaccio with warm lentil vinaigrette and a chicken liver and foie gras parfait with plum preserve and toasted brioche. I began with a ballotine of Orkney salmon with crème fraiche and petite herb salad. It was served as a salmon steak, very moist with delicate flavours, the dill and crème fraiche accompaniment adding a wonderful freshness to the palate. To accompany this I was drinking a glass of reserve Chilean Chardonnay whose oily, buttery taste and biscuit nose was complex and subtle in flavour.

My guest is a huge fan of steak tartare and simply had to try chef John Woodward's version. You could choose mild or spicy so opted for spicy. It was well presented, complete with a small 'designer egg', but it could have been more boldly piquant. To accompany this he was drinking a Western Australian Semillon/Sauvignon blend from Cape Mentelle. He also found agreeable hints of butter and a long fruity, almost floral aftertaste, with pears coming to the fore - highly enjoyable.

To follow, there was a veritable selection of temptation; a cote de boeuf (for two) consisted of an 800 gram Scottish rib eye steak, cooked on the bone, served with gaufrette potatoes and roasted bone marrow. Rump and sirloin Scottish steaks came in four different weights for even the greediest appetite and came served with a choice of béarnaise sauce, au poivre or garlic butter. For those wanting something light there was plenty of tempting sounding fish dishes, including a whole sea bass served with braised fennel in a saffron and orange sauce, and a monkfish cutlet au poivre served with pommes parmentier.

I chose the calves' liver and old spot bacon, served with creamed potatoes and sauce diable. The liver melted like butter, a perfect counterpoint to the mature tasting bacon and superb sauce. This was true winter comfort food at its best. I had a side order of cabbage and bacon, which added to the wonderful combination of tastes. To drink I had a vanilla scented Argentine red Reserva Malbec. This had spicy overtones with a blackberry flavour and a long finish, partnering the meat beautifully. My guest chose a 350gm entrecote steak, medium rare, with baby vine tomatoes, crispy potatoes. He also added two side orders - buttered spinach and fries served with bloody Mary sauce. He said everything was well cooked and was generally delicious although he wasn't sure the bloody Mary sauce lived up to its name and his food in general could have done with being a few degrees hotter. But that's the French way. To accompany the steak he had selected a glass of Italian Bardolino Classico. He said it was fruity, full bodied and held its own - making an excellent combination with the steak.

To finish there were seven puddings to choose from, including an espresso coffee parfait with hot chocolate fondant, or a baked Cox's apple filled with marzipan and sultanas, served with cinnamon ice cream. There was also a selection of French and British cheeses served with walnut bread and biscuits. I had the vanilla ice cream with hot Valrhona chocolate sauce. The ice cream's gooeyness blending appetizingly with the rich and bitter chocolate sauce. My guest had the creamed rice pudding with Armagnac agen prunes; he said it was traditionally made with a delightful flavour.

The brasserie had now become quite busy, however the acoustics are good so there was never a problem with noise. The service meanwhile was highly attentive and polite, but at points perhaps it was a little too rapid. Getting the timing right is a mug's game for waiting staff, you can never quite win!

A full 'Italian' strength double espresso, served with a complimentary pot au chocolate rounded off the evening nicely. Dining at Malmaison was a highly enjoyable experience - well worth a visit either for a purely social dinner or a business lunch, along with the added bonus of their non- smoking policy. I shall definitely return again.

Louise Elgin, October 2004.

Our dinner for two cost £143.00 including wine, service and two glasses of house champagne at £7.95 each.

Starters £ 4.75 - £8.25; Mains £12.75 - £25.95 Side orders all at £3.25;  Puddings all at £5.50;  Cheese trolley £6.50

Malmaison, Charterhouse Square London EC1, Tel: 020 7012 3700

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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