You wait all year to review a French restaurant and then two come along at once. Last week Les Gourmets des Ternes, with its no-nonsense, unfaffy cooking, reminded me of a time before the gastronomic landscape was dominated by “sharing concepts” and pop-ups and street food and cocktails with bits of bacon in them. Les Deux Salons is also evocative of that bygone culinary era, albeit for a different reason: it’s a statement restaurant. It’s big and it’s bold and it’s expensive and it’s right in the middle of town. It’s the kind of place you can imagine Nigel Havers and Dame Judy Dench sharing a boeuf bourguignon before nipping round the corner to watch their pals perform in the West End.
Restaurants like this – and like the recently re-opened Ivy – used to be the places to be seen, before the game changed and everyone decided they’d rather sit in a converted loft and drink soup out of a shoe.
Les Deux Salon is so big and bold and expensive, in fact, that it makes the mind boggle. Who can anyone afford to put a restaurant in a place so vast – it spans two sizeable floors – this close to Trafalgar Square; close enough to hit a human statue with a well-aimed bread roll? Terence Conran is who: his company recently took it over from Will Smith and Anthony Demetre (owners of Soho’s Arbutus and Mayfair’s Wild Honey). It closed for a few weeks while they spruced up the “fine dining” section on the upper floor, which is the bit I’m writing about.
I’m generally apathetic about Conran’s latter-day ventures (the ones he owns with his wife Vicki and long-term associate Peter Prescott). Albion, Boundary, Lutyens: I could live without them all. They’re fine, and close enough to my flat that I stumble into them on a semi-regular basis, but there are half a dozen places within walking distance I’d rather eat. Les Deux Salons, though, has an anachronistic charm, an old-school, refined air that somehow makes it more than the sum of its parts. Downstairs is a smart, buzzy brasserie serving expensive takes on classic French dishes. Upstairs is a smart, hushed restaurant serving even more expensive takes on classic French dishes. It’s laid out in a square around the balcony, overlooking an elaborate light installation. It has a nice, green stained glass ceiling; mirrored pillars add a splash of bling to the generally calm space.
Our waiter – as chippy and opinionated as you hope for in a French restaurant – suggested three starters. Lobster bisque with a bobbing island of tarragon cream was rich and pungent; artichokes à la Grecque (“Greek-style” – gently poached with a little olive oil) was disappointing, buried under a mountain of superfluous salad fluff; crab, grapefruit and pea bavarois was incredible, a huge serving of sweet, zesty white meat, a blob of intense dark meat smeared over a crouton, a superlative globe of creamy bavarois, dainty pink flowers strewn over the top – sublime in both taste and presentation.
For my main I ordered cote de veau – the naughty, French veal, rather than the good English stuff – which always gives me a pang of guilt. But I had no choice, your honour. Of the other options, wild salmon with Jersey Royals was out because it sounded so crushingly dull my guest had to defibrillate me back to consciousness at the very mention of it; dover sole and rack of lamb are both delicious in a standard sort of way, and therefore rather dreary to write about; the pigeon had already been bagsied by my guest; and ordering the vegetarian option (a wild mushroom fricassée) in a French brasserie is like going to a Cantonese restaurant and ordering an omelette. The veal didn’t disappoint – a hunk of chop as thick as a bible, slathered in a glaze of browned truffle honey, sitting in a pool of sweet gravy, topped with truffle shavings and girolles. Properly good, old-fashioned French cooking.
The roast pigeon hit the spot, too – light and pink, the heart and liver crushed into a rich pâté, a single withered claw reaching for the sky, reminding you of where it soared in its previous life.
A French brasserie worth its salt should shine when it comes to dessert, and this one does. The strawberry soufflé is surgically sliced open at the table and impregnated with a ball of white chocolate ice cream, which slowly descends into the pink, fleshy interior. It’s as sexual and as heavenly as it sounds. A chocolate délice with almond sorbet was less arousing but equally tasty. To wash it down I had some good wine, and then some very good wine, and then some wine I was too pissed to appreciate – the cellar, which is exclusively French, is deep and the sommelier knows his way around it.
Les Deux Salons cares not for the prevailing winds of foodie culture. It’s resolutely old-school and I for one am glad it exists. Maybe it’s even a sign that those winds are beginning to change direction. We can only hope.
First published in City A.M.