L’Escargot is one of London’s oldest restaurants, with a history that’s both fascinating and checkered.
For the past few years, it hasn’t been so much resting on its laurels as taking a deep Rip Van Winkle slumber.
Here’s some good news: It has woken up.
The restaurateur Brian Clivaz and his business partners bought L’Escargot in January and have transformed it into an inviting brasserie that reflects its old Soho roots while allowing in a little modernity. It’s also dog-friendly.
L’Escargot traces its history to 1896, according to Clivaz, when Paris restaurateur Georges Gaudin opened Le Bienvenu at 19 Greek Street, with a snail farm in the basement. Gaudin moved to the current location at 48 Greek Street in 1927 and named his restaurant L’Escargot Bienvenu (sometimes spelled Bienvenue).
Coco Chanel was an early visitor, and Greek Street legend has it that Maurice Chevalier adopted his straw hat after seeing Max Beerbohm at L’Escargot wearing a boater, according to Hospitality & Catering News.
Gaudin was a pioneer in persuading Britons to eat snails and frogs’ legs. He was honored by the French snail industry in 1921, according to the Associated Press, which reported his death in May 1961. He was appointed a Chevalier de l’Etoile Noire in 1952.
Gaudin’s son Alex took over the restaurant. Subsequent owners include husband-and-wife Nick Lander and Jancis Robinson, and then Jimmy Lahoud with the chef Marco Pierre White.
“Taking L’Escargot Forward to the Past”
Clivaz and his business partner Laurence Isaacson plan to open private meeting rooms upstairs in L’Escargot’s Georgian townhouse, and a members’ club at the top. So far, only the ground-floor dining room is completed. It is beautiful, with dark wooden floors and clubby red walls filled with pictures.
“I love traditional restaurants,” Clivaz said in an interview. “I’m a bit of a romantic. Someone has to fly the flag for those restaurants that have been around for years. Having been at Simpson’s in the Strand and the Savoy group, one is steeped in the culture of old restaurants.
‘‘We are taking L’Escargot forward to the past.”
The new head chef is Oliver Lesnik, whose Slovenian father Marjan was chef de cuisine at Claridge’s for about 12 years. Oliver worked with Angela Hartnett at the Connaught before moving on to Auberge du Lac, White’s and the Cadogan.
Although the menu is entirely tempting, and filled with things I’d like to try, the trouble is I enjoy the snails and the steak frites so much that I have stuck on those. As a result, I must help myself to my guests’ dishes to sample the rest of the menu.
As Diverse as Oysters
The snails are big, fat and garlicky. They are 18 pounds ($30) for a dozen, which is really not enough for me. For another 2 pounds, you can have them flambed tableside with Ricard. That is a must. If they could talk to you, they would be speaking English, because they come from outside London.
Clivaz says he plans to introduce different varieties of snail, because they are as different as oysters. You might try the petit gris, which are small, like garden snails, with an earthy flavor. Or how about Bourgogne, bigger and beefier?
I went along to L’Escargot for lunch one day with the French chef Pierre Koffmann, who held three Michelin stars at La Tante Claire. He enjoyed the food and declared the creme brulee to be the best he had ever tasted in his life. Koffmann is 65, and as anyone who knows him can tell you: He is rarely lavish with his praise.
Jostling to Get In
Other than the snails and some strong dishes like a richly plump veal chop, I’d say the cooking is good and solid, rather than outstanding. This is a French bourgeois restaurant not a fancy-pants gastronomic temple. It’s the warmth of the welcome that makes L’Escargot difficult to resist.
And so to the wine list, which is almost entirely French. Most bottles cost 20 pounds to 40 pounds. If you want to pay a little more, the Chateau Garraud, Lalande de Pomerol 2008 is 52 pounds. Besserat de Bellefon Brut Champagne is 48 pounds.
People should be lining up outside L’Escargot. Celebrities should be jostling to get in. It would sound odd to say you should hurry to a place called The Snail.
So may I politely suggest that you slither along soonest?
L’Escargot, 48 Greek Street, London, W1D 4EF. Information: http://www.lescargotrestaurant.co.uk/ or +44-20-7437-6828.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)