The highlight of my trip to London was always going to be dinner at Le Cafe Anglais. While it isn't the fanciest place you could go (especially not in London), it's slogan of "affordable luxury" appealed to my very empty looking bank account.
I met up with two friends, Jess and G, and after a few drinks at a nearby pub, we headed over for our booking at 8. The entrance from the street is a tiny reception, and you then take a lift up to the second floor to reach the dining room. The whole thing is done in an art deco style, with pastel greens and creams, banquettes and blocky glass lampshades. The dining room was impressively large, and had a vintage style grandeur that you don't find in modern buildings. It would have perhaps looked a little dated in some places, but I thought it worked well with the style of the Whiteley's building. Along the back wall was the bar area, as well as an open kitchen area with a rather large rotisserie section. We needn't have booked though, as of the 200 or so seats, only about 20 were occupied.
We were shown to our seats, and treated ourselves to some Bellinis. After much perusing of the menu, we opted for a selection of hors d'oeuvres and then the main course., skipping the starters We ordered Parmesan custard with anchovy toast, rabbit rillettes with picked endive and kipper pate with a soft boiled egg.
The kipper pate and rabbit rillettes were good, although there wasn't really enough bread to go round. We also spent ages arguing over whether the picked endive was white asparagus or artichoke. It was only when we saw the menu again on the way out that we realised that no one had been right!
I'd heard good things about the Parmasan custard and anchovy toast, and I was really excited to try it, even though I generally dislike strong cheese flavours. The salty anchovies embedded in the toast helped minimise the cheesiness of the custard, but even when eaten alone the Parmesan flavour wasn't overwhelming. I'm still not sure if I like Parmesan, but this seemed like something I could get used to.
The manager came up to our table, and asked us if we were in the food business. We were half tempted to say yes, given that bloggers now seem to receive press releases and samples in the same way the traditional media used to. (I was also still vaguely convinced I owned a deli after my turn at the RFF). We settled for describing ourselves as "interested amateurs". The manager announced that there had been a mix up over our main courses, and they wouldn't be ready for some time. To make up for this, he was going to send out some more hor d'oeuvres to pass the time, and did we like oysters?
Minutes later our table was laden with mackerel teriaki and cucumber salad; octopus, rice and pimenton; and fried oysters with Thai dipping sauce. The mackerel was tasty, and the cucumber salad was a refreshing counterpoint. I'd never tried octopus before, only squid, so that was exciting. It was chewy, but without being rubbery. Jess had eaten octopus before and declared this version a good example. The risotto style rice underneath had a hint of spice, and was still rich with a creamy texture. I'd had fried oysters in a sandwich in Canada last year, which made me feel a little ill as they were quite greasy. These ones were dry, the crispy batter giving way to the soft oyster underneath, paired with a zingy sweet basil dipping sauce. Given that it was all free, it was extra nice, but I don't know if I'd have thought the octopus good value had I paid £10 for it. It was from the starters menu, but was barely bigger than the hors d'oeuvres, which only cost around £3. While we did quite well out of the mix up, I was not impressed that they had got confused when they were only operating at about 10% of their dining room capacity. What would have happened if the kitchen had actually been busy?
I was feeling very full by this point, and then the main courses turned up. G had a sea bass, Jess some very tender pink lamb, and I had middle pork with lentils. We also ordered a dauphinois gratin, and spring vegetables. My pork also came with crackling, which is always good, although parts of it were chewy rather than crispy. My main criticism of the dish was that the lentils were quite watery, and could have done with some herbs or spices to perk them up a bit. I didn't manage to finish the pork, partly because I was now ridiculously full, and partly because it didn't inspire me that much. It was decent, but nothing special. The dauphinois was deliciously rich, but the spring vegetables with garlic were less memorable.
Against my best intentions, we finished with a Queen of Puddings. None of us had eaten it before, and we were intrigued as to what it could be. It looked impressive, with tiny meringue peaks piped over the top of the dish. Underneath, there was eggy custard, sponge cake and jam. Very British, very tasty, and surprisingly light. This was accompanied by a large pot of Barry's tea, and much contemplating who this Barry character was anyway. The waitress informed us that the blend is named after the tea room in Ireland that invented it, but the mystery of who Barry is remains unsolved.
Dinner came to about £40 each including service, for which we got an hors d'oeuvre each, a Bellini, a main course with side vegetables, and 33% of a Queen of Puddings and a pot of tea. While this is at the pricier end of the spectrum (especially considering we didn't have wine with the meal) I was generally pleased. The food was mostly skillfully cooked, and I had the chance to sample some new things (octopus, Queen of Puddings) as well as some unusual flavours and textures (Parmesan custard). I also thought the surroundings were comfortable without being too stuffy, and I enjoyed watching the goings on in the open kitchen.
Unfortunately, I don't think Le Cafe Anglais represents "affordable luxury" for me. Maybe it will when I have a salary rather than a student loan, although I did notice they had a cheaper set menu for lunchtimes and weekday nights. However, should I ever be in London celebrating, (especially if someone else is paying!) I would love to go back.
(All photos in the post courtesy of Jess, and her far superior camera)
UPDATE: You can read Jess's account of the evening here.