GARNIER, EARLS COURT
It may have been the morning spent with the epitome of French pastry-perfection, or just geography but today I had a yearning pour manger la cuisine bourgeoise. The Gallic baker of whom I speak is Richard Bertinet. Safe to say I’m a fan. His books are beautiful, his knowledge unparalleled and his conversation always warm and engaging. I’d done my best to keep Richard company as he cooked in Harrods for Le Creuset . A few tantalising mouthfuls of mushrooms a la creme, a modest tarte aux fraises, and a sliver tarte Tatin (forgive the lack of correct punctuation please) had passed my lips while watching with an assortment of shoppers. A lovely mid-morning snack but by 1pm the taste buds were jonesing for the kind of lunch you always dream will be in every French town but just isn’t anymore. But head to the arse-end of Earl’s Court in London and you will find it in a restaurant called Garnier. If you’re anything like me, this will make you think of a laboratoire that makes mid-priced face cream and hair products but that’s because I watch too much TV.
The The Cake and Bake Show had first dibs on Richard so I was on my own. Normally when I’m in this mood, the only thing that will set me on the straight and narrow is a session with Henry Harris at Racine but Garnier was closer and I was hungry. Now, I confess to feeling a little disloyal to dear Henry but I justified it by thoughts of this blog and the disingenuous hope that I could report back to Henry that it was horribly disappointing. Well, if you’re reading this Henry, sorry mate….I know the restaurant is run by your erstwhile business partners. All I can say, is you taught them well.
I thought it might be busy with visitors to the Baking Expo but the chatter of French and the profusion of Royal blue v-necked cashmere signalled a sizeable proportion of the diners were eschewing a pie at Stamford Bridge for a fillet steak aux poivre or a Dover Sole. At £32 for the sole the average Chelsea supporter in here was clearly not too worried about the price of a season ticket. I hadn’t booked but was very warmly welcomed and surprised to be shown to a prime corner table in the window. The effect was to immediately make me feel normal and special all at the same time.
Didier had the air of someone for whom service is a vocation; the immaculate tailoring and luxuriant head of French hair (because he’s worth it – no, that’s not Garnier is it?) added to the feeling that this was a serious place with ambitions to be here for a very long time. Seated immediately after me was a very frail Michael Winner and the soignée Geraldine. They turned down the other corner table next to me and chose to be seated at a large round one opposite. I was a tad disappointed to be honest. I was looking forward to hearing what really went in to that dictaphone. But my mood improved when I read the menu. It was right up my Rue.
If there’s fish soup on a menu, I nearly always have it. I love all the gubbins; the frilly gruyere cheese and spicy rouille on croutons, but I couldn’t resist snails with parsley veloute and lardo. The vivid green veloute and shelled grey molluscs were served on a slice of Poilane which was toasted to the texture of concrete. Resistant to anything but a chisel, it threatened to carry my snails away as I cut into it only for it to skitter across the plate making a dash for the tablecloth. But the sexy draping of lardo made for an unctuous mouthful. The dish may have been an homage to Loiseau but it was perhaps a little under-seasoned (Henry’s wouldn’t have been). The plate went back empty all the same and I know it’s a dish I’ll crave sooner rather than later.
The promise of a sauce soubise led to the callous casting aside of another loyal favourite – boudin noir – in favour of calves liver. Cut too thick for my personal taste (Henry’s is always perfect) but immaculately cooked and served with counterpoints found in the bitter notes of radish and turnip alongside a heady hit of crispy sage. It was a generous and joyous plate of food. They don’t hold back on the butter here and I never thought I’d say this, but I could have handled a little less.
As I sat, a succession of French customers trekked through the door looking like they’d found nirvana. All effortlessly elegant and casting off the last of their August tans, collars were turned up and Hermes handbags were autumnal in hue. This procession was eventually broken by an elderly gentleman tentatively opening the door. He’d clearly last bought a sports jacket in 1979 and spent the last 30 odd years allowing himself to shrink within it. After a little cajoling from Didier he came to sit next to me and a moderate fuss was made of him. A glass of champagne was placed in front of him followed in quick order by a plate of crepes Suzette over which a bottle of Grand Marnier was splashed with abandon by Didier.
“He’s our landlord,” explained the other besuited waiter, “He was nervous about going to the match on his own so these guys are taking him” Sure enough, Didier and the table of eight Frenchmen arose, swept him up like grandpa and off they went down the road primed for kick-off in a way more in tune with Paris St Germain than the average Chelsea FC fan.
Their departure left me (Geraldine and Michael) almost alone for pudding. I shouldn’t have had it, but I did and it’s just as well as it’s the only photo I took I’m afraid. It was a stellar chocolate mousse with a perfect cassis sorbet. (But just so we’re clear, it was not as good as Henry’s riz au lait ).
I un-selfconsciously asked for a noisette to finish and considered offering up my photographic services to Mr Winner only to be usurped by his chauffeur who parked the Bentley outside before coming in and snapping what I would imagine might be a very backlit photo for The Sunday Times’ column. When you see it, I was just out of shot on the left.
So, is Garnier a good place to dine alone?
Without doubt. One of my best ever experiences to be honest. When the menu was given to me a magazine was secreted inside. A thoughtful detail for the lone diner. That said, it did turn out to be one which featured a very favourable review of Garnier. But as the French are never knowingly self-effacing, I found that rather reassuring. But Henry wouldn’t have done that. Far too much class.