There are big beasts in the London restaurant business and then there’s Pascal Aussignac, a quietly spoken Frenchman who has plenty to shout about.
Aussignac and his business partner Vincent Labeyrie have brought an authentic taste of regional cooking to London with establishments such as Club Gascon and Comptoir Gascon.
His latest venture is a Provencal restaurant called Cigalon in a former auction house on Chancery Lane. It’s as discreet and charming as Aussignac, a native of Toulouse, who trained with Guy Savoy, Gerard Vie and other masters before opening his first London restaurant in Smithfield in 1998.
(The name Cigalon is from the 1935 Marcel Pagnol film about a chef who opens a restaurant in a village in Provence, only to find the locals all prefer the simple fare of a former laundry woman who opens a place next door. The rivalry is bitter until they agree to marry.)
Cigalon is bright and airy, with a glass ceiling filtering daylight onto reed fencing and colorful banquettes. The menu is as friendly as the staff: simple and unaffected. The prices are at a level to encourage you to linger.
The set lunch -- at 19.50 pounds ($31.11) for two courses and 24.50 for three -- is a bargain, the flavors and quality of the ingredients uncluttered by excessive intervention in the kitchen. The sea-bass tartare with seaweed and fennel, followed by cep-mushroom and green-asparagus pizzetta that I enjoyed twice recently is as good as it gets.
The desserts are similarly enticing, whether you choose bay-leaf creme brulee or soft chocolate cake, chocolate-and-caramel mousse, blackberry-and-lavender sorbet. There’s a range of unusual sorbets and I’ve happily tried most of them.
The a la carte menu includes Camargue beef cannelloni and a lamb tripe and trotter stew.
The wine list focuses on Provence and Corsica, which means there are plenty of unfamiliar options and, again, the prices are such that it’s easy to be brave and experimental.
The open kitchen is at one end of the room and it’s quiet as a library as the chefs go about the serious business of preparing your food. Cigalon’s home on Chancery Lane is deep in lawyer territory and the lunchtime diners are smartly dressed and keenly engaged in their conversations.
If you’re feeling a little more flamboyant, there’s a bar downstairs with a separate entrance. Here the menu is overseen by Julien Carlon (former head chef of Comptoir Gascon) and the atmosphere is more casual. There’s a daily menu. Small plates such as lamb-and-rosemary skewer, cured ham from Mont Ventoux and Corsican sausage and lentils are priced less than 5 pounds.
Baranis, as the bar is called, also boasts the U.K.’s only indoor petanque court for fans of this form of boules.
I prefer to go for a drink around the corner at 28-50, an excellent wine bar with food by Paul Walsh, who joined from Gordon Ramsay and is working wonders in a small kitchen. This venue, brought to you by the team behind Texture, celebrated its first anniversary this month and is going strong.
If you really want to make a night of it in this part of London, Aussignac is about to introduce a burger menu at Comptoir Gascon, including the Foie Gras and Summer Truffle Burger that won the best-dish award at this year’s Taste of London event in Regent’s Park.
Cigalon is at 115 Chancery Lane, London, WC2A 1PP. Information: +44-20-7242-8373; http://www.cigalon.co.uk/.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Most mains are below 20 pounds.
Sound level? Quiet: 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Head downstairs for an aperitif.
Special feature? Boules in the bar.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)