London possesses five duos that lead the way in dining. The Hart brothers own Fino, Barrafina and Quo Vadis; the Galvins their eponymous eateries. Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver founded the St. John mini-empire, while the Wolseley was brought to you by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.
Then there is the team behind Arbutus and Wild Honey. Chef Anthony Demetre helped change the way we eat out, applying his considerable technical skill to cheaper cuts, producing gourmet French dishes at English caff prices. Will Smith runs the front of house, appearing relaxed, yet not missing a trick.
Demetre and Smith last month opened Les Deux Salons, a third London restaurant based on the same principle of offering good service and value for money, only this time it’s on a larger stage: Where Arbutus might almost be described as intimate, Les Deux salons can seat 160 people on two floors in a former Pitcher & Piano bar close to Trafalgar Square.
It looks like an old Parisian brasserie, with lots of brass and dark wood and a tiled floor, the off-white walls possibly stained with nicotine. (The design is by Martin Brudnizki, the man behind the Club at the Ivy and Hix, plus Le Caprice in New York.) The menu is enticing and even the prices are appetizing: When I scent value, I always want to order more.
Starters include a Herefordshire snail and bacon pie at 7.95 pounds ($12.92), the beautiful pastry giving way to gravy that is dark and rich.
There’s also hand-chopped Scottish beef tartare, or my personal favorite, ravioli of rose veal, fresh goat’s curd, cavolo nero. (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends that diners ask about the origin of veal, even if they aren’t ordering it. The veal at Les Deux Salons is from the U.K., where calves are humanely reared.)
Les Deux Salons has a Josper grill, the current kitchen equipment of choice for London chefs, who value the distinct smoky flavor imparted by this hot charcoal oven. Bavette of beef emerges from the Josper remarkably soft for a relatively cheap cut. My only disappointment was the burger (12 pounds with chips), which would have benefited from a looser texture and lighter seasoning.
Elsewhere on the menu, there’s Cornish plaice stuffed with shrimps and kaffir lime (18.50 pounds), which is light on everything except flavor, and saddle of rabbit, pumpkin gnocchi and hazelnuts, a hearty dish for an autumn day.
Desserts include Demetre’s signature floating islands with pink pralines, a boozy rum baba and scoops of freshly made soft ice cream. I repeatedly end up ordering those.
There’s a buzz surrounding Les Deux Salons, and many of the tables in the opening days were filled by the restaurant businesses. One lunch, I’d say we were in the majority, if you include food journalists in such elevated company.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the esteem in which Demetre is held by fellow chefs. Pierre Koffmann says Demetre’s is fantastic, while Albert Roux told me the bouillabaisse is so good, you would be unlikely to find anything so good in France.
Let’s not get carried away. Les Deux Salons is a brasserie, not a fancy restaurant. It takes experience, skill, passion and a lot of hard work to turn a simple formula into something special while retaining the integrity of the original idea.
Not many partnerships in London could pull this off. To be precise: five by my count.
Les Deux Salons, 40-42 William IV Street, London, WC2N 4DD. Information: +44-20-7420-2050 or http://www.lesdeuxsalons.co.uk/
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? The set lunch and pre-theater menus are 15.50 pounds.
Sound level? It can be noisy: 80 decibels or so.
Inside tip? Try for a corner table; avoid sitting upstairs.
Special feature? The beautiful floor.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes, if I had one.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)