Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
A return to creature comforts after what seems an aeon in the Maghreb, and where better than GBDL for this creature to be comforted? I first visited three years ago, just after Chris and Jeff Galvin opened the place. It’s now a counterpoint to the fancier, more vertiginous affair the brothers run at the neo-Soviet Hilton on Park Lane. The ethos at the Bistrot is simpler food done well, without pretence or cheffy flummery - the Camembert foams and seaweed ice creams and pomegranate mists. Absent too are silver cloches, incessant toppings up, and ludicrous Franglais (you know where you are, Ms Darroze, with your ‘boeuf Angus Aberdeen de Chez Allens of Mayfair’). No, this place, while undoubtedly De Luxe, remains unquestionably a bistro, specifically a Noughties bistro moderne, and the winner of Best French Restaurant at this year’s London Restaurant Awards.
Pace Giles Coren, it seems right to point out that this place is priced very fairly. In some ways, a recession is almost a good thing for the restaurant industry, raising as it does the customers’ awareness of avarice and VFM. Pennies pinched prompt a flight to classics and quality; at the top end, this should include, for example, Le Gavroche, a trailblazing stalwart of the London scene for four decades; while at the lower end comes, it is hoped, a rediscovery of neighbourhood restaurants overlooked in the era of the £150-a-head degustation, drinks and twelve-and-a-half non inclus. The Bistrot deserves to buck the downturn.
Monday night. The house manager, Jean Mounaix, welcomes us, sidling us along to a crisp linened table. R’s apéritif maison is a weird muck of Prosecco, Kirsch, apple juice and lemon peel, the Kirsch in particular acting like a swig of tepid gin. At least there’s a pearly glass of Galvin Grande Resérve Brut as well, which is far better. It’s a stunning wine list, in all honesty, with a dozen available by the carafe, a great deal under £25, and a handful into triple figures for the city’s dwindling financiers.
I could enjoy anything on this menu. Starters comprise everything from smoked salmon to a mosaic of chicken with sweetbreads and foie gras, via a salad of endive with Roquefort and walnuts, steak tartare, and a mousseline of lemon sole with lobster. Unless you double up to a dozen escargots Bourguinonne or drop some sizzling hot chorizo onto your Maldon oysters, it’s all under a tenner. Main courses are priced with equal competitiveness: the most expensive item is an entrecôte of veal with cèp sauce at £38 for two, while everything else hovers around the mid-teens. A prix fixe lunch, which has increased by only 50p in three years and which now stands at £15.50, is a happy marriage of frugality and flavour: ham hock terrine with quince chutney; boudin noir with mash and caramelised apples; and rice pudding with raspberries. Would that every restaurant could get it this right.
I start with a special: terrine of foie gras, with clean layers of sliced baby leeks. It comes with some crushed hazelnuts and a small, lightly dressed salad, a shimmering puddle of olive oil at the side. At this time of year, the baby leeks are a fine addition, and they’re well cooked – steamed, I reckon – retaining freshness and bite. The foie gras isn’t too heavy, despite the generous portion; and it’s refreshing to enjoy the delicacy without fruit, for a change. R’s terrine of chicken, sweetbreads and more foie gras is better still, its harmonious ingredients assembled with thought and skill.
Main courses work equally well: a braised pig’s trotter, including its hock, appears naked and unabashed with a smooth plop of mash. The savoury mahogany sauce, a long eke of veal bones, brings everything together and makes the dish sing. My Icelandic – and thus, presumably, sustainable – cod arrives with shelled mussels, a little potage of leeks and a light curry sauce. That spicing is an indispensable fluffer for the dish: the fish too has been steamed, and although well cooked, carries little punch of its own. I’m not saying it has to be turbot every time, and I’m aware that, in W1, I shouldn’t really balk at £15.50 for a sizeable piece of wild fish in pleasant surroundings. But this is merely ordinary, and the cause of the dropped star in this review.
I’m full, really, but the manager presses me into a pudding: a splendidly chewy tarte tatin of apple, with jammy, demi-caramelised pastry; and a tarte au citron for R – one of the best I’ve tasted in ages: melding concentrated lemon with an exquisite milky richness, over superbly short pastry.
S and I return five days later for that stand-out lunch deal. We kick off with tartare of raw mackerel with black olive tapenade and rounds of English cucumber – an excellent cold starter for winter; and then a rich wild mushroom vélouté – an excellent warm one. Then salmon and cockle risotto, and braised ham hock with choucroute. A crèpe Suzette apiece and we tumble out into the November drizzle.
This bistrot is a triumphant credit to the judges of the London Restaurant Awards. I admire its decency, its commitment to delicious, unrarefied French cooking, and its frank, modest concern for things like provenance and seasonality. I like the friendliness of its staff and the fairness of its prices. Most of all, I love the fact that it espouses all this from within London, a city where greedy-guts are as common in the offices of restaurants as at the tables. It is simply a delight.
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, 66 Baker Street, London W1U
Tel. +44 (0)20 7935 4007
Three-course dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £65; £66.67 a head all-in.
Three-course lunch offer for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £31.
Aperitif Maison (£7.75)
Glass of Galvin Grande Resérve Brut (£9.50)
Bottle 2007 Le Sabounet, Roger Sabon, Rhone (£18.00)
Glass of 2006 Coteaux Layon Saint-Lambert, Loire (£6.50)