La Fromagerie in Bloomsbury is the latest addition to a small family of cheeseries (the older siblings being based in Highbury and Marylebone). Each outlet of this bourgeois mini-chain is both a cheesemonger and a little café or restaurant, each with their own character but each a temple devoted to cheese and wine. They also supply the cheese to the Gilbert Scott, so their existence has been on my radar for a while.
Lamb’s Conduit Street makes sense for their third branch: a quaint semi-residential thoroughfare that is literally the conduit between Bloomsbury and Holborn, replete with independent shops, wine merchants, traditional English pubs and modern European restaurants. It’s quite possibly my favourite street in London. If you don’t know it it’s basically a Yellow Brick Road of pure Epicurean pleasure: starting at Coram’s Fields (where adults have to be accompanied by a child) you have The Lamb and Ciao Bella, an old school boozer and kitsch Italian trattoria respectively; heading up the street, you then have a couple of coffee shops and The Perseverance (another boozer which has, er, persevered); then La Gourmandina (Franco-Italian), Cigala (Spanish) and Noble Rot (which I frequent so much I have recused myself from reviewing it). Finally, as Lamb’s Conduit Street gives way to Red Lion Street you have The Bull, an Argentinian restaurant which I discovered by accident in 2012 and so glad I did – this place, for my money, does the best steak and Malbec combo in London (and, even weirder, has a sister restaurant in Dusseldorf).
These places are all in one street, my friends. All. In. One. Street. I’ve often fantasised about going on a food crawl from one place to the next, but I’d probably die from gout. Indeed, La Fromagerie is dangerously, spittingly close to both Noble Rot and Cigala. But is this all too good to be true?
As a shop, it’s amazing. The selection of cheeses is vast. As for the restaurant part of it, it’s very well-intentioned but I have my doubts. On my first visit, within a week of its opening, there were obvious teething issues with the service. In the afternoons the kitchen takes an extended siesta and all they serve is cheese boards and charcuterie which, you would think, would not be difficult to serve. The cheese boards themselves are fine and decently-sized: you can choose French, Italian or British/Irish selections, each one garnering around 5 slices of different cheeses for just under a tenner, and well-chosen matching wines available for each. It was just their flustered delivery and presentation that bothered me. We were a party of three and ordered a different type of cheese board each but the waiter seemed confused as to who ordered what, getting into quite a flap about it, even bordering on an existential crisis. It’s only cheese dude, calm down!
Then there’s the clutter. Two menus are presented for each diner, leaving one behind for reference so “you can see what the cheeses are.” Wine hasn’t quite destroyed all of my brain cells yet so I can remember the cheeses I chose – I found the extra pieces of the paper on the table, and the crowdedness of the wine glasses, water glasses, candle and cheese boards, annoying. In this world of overflowing inboxes and fake news, do we need more clutter in our lives?
To be fair, these issues appeared to have been ironed out by the time of my second visit, on a busier evening.
as the nights draw in you want to get stuck in to some raclette or a fondue Savoyarde
Its recent opening is also good timing for trying out its hot menu: as the nights draw in you want to get stuck in to some raclette or a fondue Savoyarde. I tried the twice-baked soufflé (because once-baked isn’t enough and thrice-baked would be too much). The best cheese soufflé on earth is at Le Gavroche (if there’s just one thing to put on your food bucket list, make it the Soufflé Suissesse there). La Fromagerie’s rendition was good, made from Le Skieur (a high mountain cheese) and parmesan cream, served in a baking dish hotter than the sun, with the cheese bubbling away like lava from Vesuvius – but it stopped short of spectacular. It also seemed a little dear for £12.
The menu is virtually a facsimile of the Highbury version (known as ‘No 6’) with only a handful of token non-cheese items: a duck confit, a rabbit ragu, Portuguese sardines, one salmon dish and eggy things for brunch. Of course you come to La Fromagerie for the cheese – to complain about the menu’s fromagian tunnel vision would be like complaining that a Nando’s only serves chicken. I do wonder though if the staff will get “cheesed off” after a while and get bored of their own menu, which will impact service, and of course it excludes anyone who can’t eat dairy.
Ambience-wise, the lighting, dark pine tree green walls and marble top bar emulate Noble Rot opposite, whilst the soap in the toilets is provided by Aesop next door (just as they provide the soap for Noble Rot too). It basically feels like an offshoot of Noble Rot, just with softer seating. Imitation is a great source of flattery but I do wonder if there needs to be a bit more variety on this street.
It basically feels like an offshoot of Noble Rot, just with softer seating
Indeed, the argument could be made that Lamb’s Conduit Street is already saturated with French/Italian/Spanish-style eateries that it doesn’t need yet another one – it only adds to an already homogenous offering. With the shop available for conversion, perhaps this could’ve been an opportunity for something more leftfield, like a Nordic cafe or something Middle-Eastern or Asian to add some variety and spice to proceedings. But at least La Fromagerie adds to the competition (indeed, their small cheese board undercuts Noble Rot’s by £3) and each of these neighbours will need to up their game, rather than lag behind and become sad and moribund like Vat’s Wine Bar did. The first year is always the toughest for a restaurant – La Fromagerie will surely benefit from a ton of intrigued footfall but can it compete with and siphon off Ciao Bella’s fans or Noble Rot’s die-hard regulars (which include me)? We’ll just have to see.
52 Lamb's Conduit Street
by J A Smith