Sunday, 16 May 2010

L'Etranger restaurant review

As AA Gill mentioned in his recent review of Comerç 24 in Barcelona, our approach to food is changing. In keeping with our impatient times, we want our food to be big, bright and breathtaking, attacking our tastebuds with flavour, and menus across the world have been pimped with exotic ingredients to keep up with the trend.

One way to win on the flavour front is to marry food from two different cultures, bringing the best of both worlds to the table. Sushinho on King's Road is doing interesting things with its Brazilian and Japanese menu, but way before the restaurant opened its doors, L'Etranger was in on the act.

The South Kensington stalwart has been serving up French and Japanese, or 'Frapanese' cuisine since 2002. Head chef Jerome Tauvron, whose CV includes stints with Pierre Gagnaire in France, Alain Ducasse in Monaco and Marco Pierre White in London, isn't keen on the term 'fusion' cooking, as while working together, the ingredients remain separate and distinct platefellows.

The minimal lilac and grey interiors seem to echo Albert Camus' economical writing style in the existentialist novel L'Etranger, from which the restaurant gets its name. Boasting over 1,000 bins, L'Etranger has one of the finest wine lists in London and an on-site wine shop. Perhaps in a nod to the novel's protagonist, Meursault, an impressive 40 Meursault's by the bottle are on offer.

I dined at L'Etranger with a chef friend on a Tuesday evening, and the urbane 50-seater was throbbing with life. Arriving early, our table was soon flanked on both sides by enthusiastic Americans. Manager Dorian explained that they rely on their regular customers and that numbers dipped dramatically during the ash cloud crisis, when a chunk of their affluent clientele were left stranded in different pockets of the world.

L (the chef) and I both opted for tasting menus, with L sampling the £59 'Degustation' menu, while I opted for the slightly more decadent £89 'Opulence' menu, both of which were diligently matched with different wines by Timothy, our eager-to-please French sommelier who looked like he was fresh out of wine school.

My scallops tartar with summer black truffles served in its shell was matched with top Rhône producer E. Guigal's Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (£9.50/glass). The pairing worked well, the ceviche-style citrus in the dish mirroring the remarkable freshness of the rich, complex white Rhône. Light yet flavoursome, it was hard to fault, and the perfect beginning to this epicurean adventure. L's tuna tartare was well executed, but the accompanying serving of sevruga caviar was tiny.

As L's menu was a dish smaller than mine, we both shared the rock shrimp and exotic flower tempura with sweet ponzu; a sauce made from soy and lemon. Served in a Japanese bamboo steamer, the green, orange and purple exotic flowers exploded with colour, and when paired with the sauce, flavour. Rock shrimp tempura is my favourite thing on the menu at Nobu, and I didn't think anything could ever come close to matching its magnificence, but this did, the zesty sauce wonderfully counterbalancing the fatty tempura. Our wine match, 2008 Gatekeeper Chardonnay from the Barossa Valley in Australia (£8.50/glass) was the most disappointing of the night. The wine was rich and buttery, while I was hoping for something fresh and zippy to cut through the fat.

Both the fish dishes impressed. I was envious of L's caramelised black cod and sweet miso sauce, L'Etranger's signature dish, but in the end it was my roast Chilean seabass that shone. While the cod was slightly dry, my seabass was expertly cooked and fell off the fork. Tender and slightly sweet, the flavours were elegant and delicate rather than punchy. It was matched with an exciting, grassy wine from Nantes producer Eric Chevalier made from the region's native grape Fie Gris (£40/bottle), whose searing acidity cut through the oily fish, giving it freshness and lift.

On to the main event, which for me was pampered and preened Grade 9 Wagyu beef fillet with black truffle and sauteed wild mushrooms paired with Austrian producer Anita Und Hans Nittnaus Kurzberg Pinot Noir 2005 (£9.50/glass). I asked for it medium rare, and it came deliciously pink. Soft and tender, the meat was almost silky, and packed with juicy flavour, which harmonized with the savoury, leathery Pinot Noir, that took a back seat to the beef, enhancing rather than overpowering its flavour. When combined with the rich foie gras and heady truffle it made for a soft, opulent mouthful of flavour-rich food. I closed my eyes in pure delight to catch every flavour in my mouth. But at £55 a la carte, it should be damn good.

Pudding was an equally exciting affair. After a tofu ice cream palate cleanser and a glass a ice-cold saké, L's caramel tart with macadamia nuts matched with Ramos Pinto 10-year-old Tawny Port stole the limelight from my more modest pear tartin and sesame ice cream, which matched well with a waxy, unctuous Château Septy Monbazillac 2005 (£9/glass).

L'Etranger clearly knows what it's doing. The food is accomplished and stylishly presented, and the service from the predominantly French staff is attentive without being overbearing. The a la carte will give your credit card a workout, but the 3 course set lunch is amazingly good value at £19.50. Marrying French and Japanese food may sound like a strange exercise, and you have to taste it to believe it, but Tauvron's dishes respect the classic tradition, bringing with them an exciting modern twist.

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