Novelli EC1, Clerkenwell Green

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Novelli takes over at 
Auberge du Lac

Brocket Hall, the grand stately home in Hertfordshire is the latest location for Jean Christophe to show off his culinary talents.

Dine Online was at the launch February 2003

Auberge du Lac, 2003 

With such rapid expansion of the Novelli empire, can Jean-Christophe maintain his high standards? asks Clifford Mould

  Novelli EC1 is right next door to Novelli's original Clerkenwell restaurant which has proved to be such a success since its opening a little over a year ago. The posh restaurant Maison Novelli has now expanded into the whole of the original site, and what used to be the Brasserie now occupies the upper floor of Novelli EC1. There's a cocktail bar at street level with a large private room down a rather garish corridor behind. When we visited on a Wednesday evening they were using the private room as an overspill from the main dining area, which goes to show how popular this new restaurant is already.

The brasserie quickly gained the reputation for giving Londoners access to very good modern French cuisine at extremely realistic prices. But when so many expansion plans take fruit in such a short space of time one wonders whether it is still possible to keep the eye on the ball. Worse still, there's often the temptation to cut corners when an operation is so hugely successful. Earlier this year Jean-Christoph opened Novelli W8, another brasserie in Notting Hill, while at the same time revolutionising the food on SeaFrance Ferries' Dover-Calais run. Then there's his collaboration with the Cellars Hohenhort in Cape Town, not to mention what I imagine will become his flagship operation, the lovely Les Saveurs, of happy memory, in Mayfair. So it was with thoughts of all these developments in mind that I arrived one evening at EC1 with two ladies in tow, both of whom are fascinated by all things gastronomical.

EC1 is decorated in a particular shade of dark blue, almost violet. My friend who is an interior decorator says it is Iris Blue, but I think we should call it Novelli Blue, since this shade has become the sort of trade mark of all Jean-Christoph's restaurants. The decor at EC1 is plain and unfussy, with a sharply contrasting white gloss, the snow white tables picked out by those little spotlights that dangle on perilously thin looking wires. The bench seating is a bit narrow, but to my surprise I wasn't too uncomfortable. The tables are small and rather close together; luckily our neighbours were very friendly and were total foodies, so I was able to take a close squint at one or two other dishes in addition to our own.

There's a lot to choose from on the menu, and there's a copy of their October Menu for you to browse. We began with a spicy aubergine salad served in a crisp parmesan bowl. It was vividly flavoured and the aubergine was moist without seeming oily. I deliberately chose the tarte fine of aubergine tapenade, just to see whether the aubergine base was actually the same but tarted up with different garnishes, in this case chorizo and mozzarella. This was not cooking by numbers: my aubergine was indeed differently (and interestingly) prepared, although I felt that the blanket of once molten mozzarella cheese was an unnecessary if generous distraction. A risotto of smoked haddock was greatly enjoyed for its spicy fresh flavour, and a passionate discussion ensued with our neighbours about how al dente the rice should be. We would have been even more ecstatic if it had been crunchier, but our neighbour thought it "contrived to be both solid and light" and was therefore "just perfect". It's all a matter of individual taste.

The lady next door had a starter of potato and goat's cheese terrine with pan fried celeriac and a lot of other bits and bobs. She thought it was all very good, except that the delicate taste of the celeriac was rather swamped. We all agreed that next time we'd definitely try the black pudding, seared lamb's tongues and poached egg - it sounds just the job on a cold winter's night in Clerkenwell!

All the main dishes we sampled were first rate. Simple, very meaty, well flavoured and definitely French. I was reminded of those evocative descriptions of farmhouse kitchens in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking: "those carefully composed, slowly cooked dishes which are the domain of French housewives (she was writing nearly 40 years ago!) and the owner-cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs." This is the sort of good honest cuisine that is right and proper to expect in bistro and brasserie, and very glad I was to renew my acquaintance with such old and valued culinary friends. Chef Craig Thomas is of course a true professional - quite apparent from the manner in which these dishes had been prepared. Mostly they were just given a subtle tweak, nothing silly or pretentious though. I would have preferred the food to have been offered on larger plates, but I suspect that is a matter which is to some extent dictated by the small tables.

The boned, stuffed pig's trotter had to come on a big plate; it was so long it would have fallen off the edge of anything smaller! The delicious stuffing was constructed from a base of black pudding, the outside was perfectly browned and the accompanying purée of celeriac was like velvet. This was a memorable dish. I had a beef daub that E. David would have raved over - it was marinaded in wine in which some powdered liquorice had first been dissolved. More stick liquorice was added later during the cooking. I hate liquorice on its own, it's one of the very few things I don't eat. But it's marvellous cooked like this, giving a heavenly, lip-coating slickness to the dish. The tendons in the beef had melted right down to give a gratifyingly unctuous texture. Similarly slow treatment had been applied to a lamb shank, looking at first glance like kleftiko but which was coated in a rich honey glaze. The accompanying chickpeas, advertised as a "salsa" were perhaps a bit too plain and homely. Our friend next door also greatly enjoyed the lamb and we were intrigued and gratified to notice that his version was presented slightly differently from my wife's. This was another indicator, as if we needed it, that there's no cooking by numbers at EC1. His lady had roast grey mullet which she declared was gorgeous, but her polenta could have been more exciting. On second thoughts, I expect that if the vegetables had been spicier or more Mediterranean, we'd have complained (perversely) that such rich meats and fish needed plainer, more comforting accompaniments.

After such substantial main courses, a melody of spiced fruit soup with malt ice cream was much appreciated for its light freshness. It was good to see seasonal items like quinces and figs being pressed into service. I had a tatin of quince which was a good idea but didn't quite come off. The quince, a large one, was cored like a baked apple and smothered in pastry then inverted. It needed to be cut up for the fruit to become properly carmelised, but that unique, magical flavour of quince was sufficient to inspire me to rush out and find some while they are still about. A concoction of fresh figs and bananas was beautifully cooked in a very grand papillote - steam and fragrance escaped as it was cut open.

You need to make sure that you are offered the EC1 wine list rather than the list from the restaurant next door, or you will find anything but brasserie prices. Fair enough I suppose, as there is a good selection of really excellent wines, but there is not a lot to choose from under twenty pounds. There's a nice looking Alsace Pinot Noir for 18.50, but a bottle of the 1994 Patache d'Aux will cost you 31.50. We enjoyed a fresh Beaujolais Morgon, Domaine Laurent Guillet 1996 for 24.50.

Our verdict was that this was authentic modern French cuisine, where the debt to tradition is stronger than the temptation to tart everything up just to be trendy. Certainly we did not feel that any corners were cut; the service and cuisine are both excellent. There's a spontaneous feel to the operation that I liked. That quince tatin, for instance: OK, so it didn't quite come off, but I'd rather try something interesting and innovative than yet another boring old brulée. But then, would Jean-Christophe ever put his name to a boring brulée? I think not.

Novelli EC1, 30 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
Tel: 020 7251 6606 Open Monday - Saturday 11am to 11pm, Sunday 12 noon to 3pm 0

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