If only we could always revisit previous decisions when new information comes to light. Restaurants, like economies or political manifestos, can go downhill: they can be stripped of their stars or not fulfil their promise. Conversely, those we write off as hopeless can improve if given the chance. Then there are those on the periphery, like quiet but principled backbenchers, who do not get the voice they deserve. Many, thankfully, remain consistent – but it takes a lot just to maintain the status quo.
It’s often assumed that just because a restaurant is an old stalwart it has to be good. Beyond reproach. Not subject to any kind of scrutiny because it has been around for donkeys’ years. I was disabused of this notion after a terrible meal at L’Escargot back in 2014, soon after it had been acquired by Brian Clivaz and Laurence Issacson. Yes, it’s a Soho institution. Yes, it’s arguably London’s first French restaurant (and certainly the first to serve snails when original owner Georges Gaudin had a snail farm in the basement). But after one dreadful meal, I remained scarred by the experience. Looking back at my Moleskine notes at the time, the steak was over-cooked, the hollandaise sauce for the asparagus came like a blancmange (even with a skin on it), the millefeuille pastry was burnt – actually burnt to the point of being inedible. My French dining companion was so offended by the assault on her country’s food that we vowed never to return. This Soho stalwart was on life support.
But then I realised how harsh that was. Back in 2014 the new owners had only just taken over. The restaurant is still going strong so there must surely be some redeeming features. And as David Davis reminds us, we can always change our minds. Like a form of exposure therapy, I tentatively revisited the scene of the crime in 2019. And I was very pleasantly surprised.
I’m glad L’Escargot has found its mojo again
The previous garish décor seems to have been toned down and the menus simplified though the pictures of royal patrons remain in the loos. The calmer décor somehow makes for a more sedate atmosphere too, with waiting staff who seemed more self-assured than last time.
They’re still keeping snails right at the heart of things but now in a jovial, fun way. They are inescapable, the wretched, slimy (though very tasty) gastropods: a bold box on the menu proffers them at either 6 for £16 or 12 for £30, there are snail-shaped chocolates with the petits fours and even a ‘Snailgroni’ (which is essentially a Sbagliato). Go for the standard snails, bathed in a pea-green parsley butter and garlic sauce, and you will be banned from public transport for a month. For an extra treat they can be flambéd with Ricard.
The prix fixe menu at 3 courses for £21.50 is astounding value for central London and the à la carte runs the gamut of French staples, from steak tartare to Marseille’s Bouillabaise.
A starter of salmon with wafer-thin crispy fried bread, a lemon wedge, diced red onion and capers, was standard issue – almost like pub food – but uncontroversial and delicious.
The confit duck leg was excellent: moist, sensitively cooked with a flavoursome jus that made a great bedfellow with the petits pois à la française (peas with lardons and pearl onions, basically). Like the salmon, this wouldn’t win any prizes for presentation or imagination, but it tasted wonderful.
Tournedos Rossini, with its black truffle and foie gras, is always going to be an expensive choice and I wondered if this would match the same dish at Otto’s. It is on a par, complete with a jus the colour of fake tan (and a shade cheaper than Otto’s at £39).
Similarly, the tarte au citron was faultless with the perfect balance of crumbly, buttery pastry, and sharp, citrusy set custard. In fact, I actually struggled to find fault with anything. And I nearly forgot to mention the heavenly salted caramel profiteroles! But notably the millefeuille that had burnt to a crisp 5 years ago is no longer there. I wonder if they have learnt to stick to their strengths (though, really, how can you cock up a millefeuille?).
The wine list is surprisingly brief, though almost entirely (and unashamedly) French. There is more choice at local bastion Brasserie Zedel, but like Zedel, L’Escargot is nothing special. There’s no fancy wizardry or wheel reinvention here. It is still just a classic French bistro and, really, through a British lens. But there’s comfort in that.
This was a very good meal, more than making up for 2014’s aberration. The question is whether this remains consistent. At least for now I’m glad L’Escargot has found its mojo again.
48 Greek Street
by J A Smith