From a Messy Start, London’s Le Chabanais Emerges Triumphant
The opening of Le Chabanais was like an Andy Warhol artwork. And I don't mean a Campbell's soup can.
I'm referring to the car-crash prints, with battered bodies thrown clear of tangled wreckage.
Excitement had surrounded the news in November that Inaki Aizpitarte was planning a restaurant in London. The Basque chef is revered for Le Chateaubriand, a funky venue in Paris that combines creative gastronomy with a slice of attitude.
Then things started to go wrong.
The London opening slipped by months, as happens. Le Chabanais then started taking bookings and invited in guests for previews. A few days on, it closed again because of malfunctioning extraction (ventilation) equipment. All reservations were canceled.
It was around this stage it emerged that Kevin Lansdown, the former general manager of Scott's in Mayfair who was overseeing Le Chabanais, planned to leave. When I finally arrived for lunch at the start of this month, Chef Aizpitarte wasn't even in the U.K.
And so, finally, to the food: My expectations were not high, but it turned out to be surprisingly good.
This shouldn't really be such a wonder, as Le Chateaubriand’s head chef, Paul Boudier, is in charge. It's the dissonance between a kitchen that's firing on all cylinders and a restaurant that isn't that creates the confusion.
The cooking is modern French: not modern as in crazy look-at-me dishes in search of attention, like a soap star in the Big Brother house or a politician's pledges chiseled in stone. It's gastronomy that is eclectic and inventive while retaining focus.
Take a dish such as Basque squid stew, at 9 pounds ($14). This relatively simple starter with tomatoes, onions, and garlic, packs a punch in terms of flavor. The squid is stewed in its own ink, for a dark and alluring dish whose distinctive taste is amplified by pepper, wine, and a hint of vinegar.
Chicken liver ravioli (12 pounds) is served in a fennel broth, the translucent pasta stuffed with herbs and meat; it's fresh-tasting and surprisingly light. Quail is cooked in tandoori spices and topped with a yogurt whose sourness complements the sweetness of the flesh and the spiciness of the seasoning.
The mains come loaded with vegetation, which adds to the visual appeal and the freshness but does mean you have to get a little interactive if you want to track down that veal sweetbread lurking within the smoked aubergine and elderflower, or the flavorsome lamb that is lost in the spring salad and feta.
I enjoy the buttermilk ice cream dessert as much as anything on the menu. It's dreamy creamy and washed with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of lemon thyme.
The kitchen is employing great ingredients and turning out dishes that are technically refined. Le Chabanais brings to London an individual style of French gastronomy that is quirky and attractive without being overly challenging.
I know diners who have visited Le Chabanais expecting rock 'n' roll and been disappointed to find something softer and gentler. (Except for the washroom, whose raunchy look is a reminder that the restaurant is named after a Paris bordello.) Those patrons anticipated Keith Moon and ended up spending the night with Phil Collins. Something happened on the way to heaven; the food crowd wanted a rude bistro and got a polite restaurant.
The dishes are sufficiently distinctive to make a visit worthwhile. Whether you will want to go back may depend on how the front of house settles in. In the early days, Le Chabanais felt posh in a not-very-welcoming Mayfair way.
The striking design—with brass panels on the walls and floor—is attractive yet cold. The service style doesn't help.
When I visited, staffers were variously staring at computers, polishing glasses, checking receipts, and holding meetings.
The poet John Milton wrote: "They also serve who only stand and wait." Please note: This maxim does not apply in restaurants.
Le Chabanais is at 8 Mount Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 3NF; +44-20-7491-7078 or www.lechabanaislondon.com.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.
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