The part of Fitzrovia surrounding Piquet isn’t what you’d call atmospheric. At least not in a good way. To the north block after block of faceless office buildings recede into the distance; to the south lies the grubbier end of Oxford Street, with its legion of dead-eyed Christmas shoppers; and directly opposite is the concrete skeleton of a construction site, plastic sheets billowing in glassless windows.
Piquet is a little oasis of cheer in this grey desert. The restaurant is located in what used to be an underground car-park, still evidenced by the concrete pillars holding the place up (there’s also a narrow upstairs bar but it was empty at both 9.15pm and 11pm on a Saturday, which suggests it isn’t very popular). While the building may have been designed for parking cars and selling drugs, the team behind Piquet – which includes Andre Blais, the head of pulled pork chain Bodean’s – have managed to make it rather cosy. The walls are clad in wood-panelling or covered in rich, patterned wallpaper, creating an almost gothic effect that’s offset by cheerful, lightweight pewter furniture. The open-plan kitchen, meanwhile, is so close to the seating area that it gives the whole room the bearing of a canteen; my first instinct was to find a tray and start queuing.
Alas, while Piquet may avoid looking like a sealed concrete box, it still has the acoustics of one: on a busy Saturday night I could hear approximately one word in three spoken by the waiting staff, and maybe two thirds from the person sitting opposite.
Thankfully you don’t need to converse to enjoy the food, which is thoroughly excellent. I’ve been saying this a lot recently – I’ve found something to enjoy in almost every new opening I’ve been to in the last six months (with a couple of glaring exceptions). For all the frustrations of modern dining – the sharing concepts and the no-booking policies and the lack of sodding crockery – there’s genuinely never been a better time to eat out in London than right now, this very second. We’re at the apex, people, down tools and go directly to your nearest restaurant, for these surely are the last days of Rome, destined to be snatched from underneath us at any moment.
But just because I’ve been so effusive over the last few months shouldn’t lessen the impact of how effusive I’m about to be about Piquet, whose very British take on classic French cooking more than compensates for the questionable locale. The name of the restaurant is a riff on the Franco-British theme, a gallicised version of chef patron Allan Pickett’s name (to complete the ouroboros, the name was introduced to these shores when the Normans conquered England back in 1066).
The coming together of French and British cuisines is as seamless and elegant as two dancers in a gentle waltz. Take the snail pithivier, whose light, buttery pastry gives way to a meaty payload of plump snails not from France but Littlebourne in Kent. They’re coddled in crushed peas and topped with a ever-so-slightly sharp medeira jus; a perfect union between French thinking and British ingredients. Or there’s the huge, fluffy clouds of veal sweetbreads, almost fatty enough to give them the consistency of foie gras, the accompanying mash so creamy it looked like it might burst like a water balloon if you prodded it with a fork.
There are more straight-forwardly British dishes, like the slices of sweet scallop with tiny globes of apple and cucumber, and a Mediterranean influence evident in the casserole of cod cheeks with baby squid, navy beans and chorizo, although in this case the chorizo tended to overpower the delicate, fleshy fish.
The chocolate and passionfruit custard and tuille required too much thought for a dessert, too many flavours and textures vying for your attention: the acid of the fruit, the bitterness of the mousse, the powdery chocolate crumb mix, the jagged edges of the tuille, which you have to break up yourself to dip into the concoction. But the apple sorbet with preserved blackberries tasted exactly like a Shropshire orchard on a blustery autumnal morning, the fear that it might be healthy quickly dispelled by a vast blob of cream and a liberal sprinkling of crushed vanilla shortbread.
The sorbet is a microcosm of Pickett’s cooking: simple and self assured. Understated. Perfectly executed. Piquet probably won’t make many year-end best restaurant lists, but it should. I can’t imagine a situation that wouldn’t be improved by it being here: a business meeting; a visit from your mother; a meal to tell your wife you don’t love her any more.
Right now, you can just about get a table. By the time Crossrail arrives, this place will be booked-up until the apocalypse. Get in now, and make sure you order the snails.
First published in City A.M.