Saturday, 15 January 2011


With Christmas now a distant memory, we're midway through the bleakest month of the year – a time of abstinence, detoxes, pretoxes and rain. A time when our minds are permitted to wonder and dream of blue skies, as we trudge through the daily drizzle.

What better way then to escape the gray, than at Cigalon, a slice of sunny Provence in London's legal throbbing heart. Opening its doors on Chancery Lane late last November, the former auction house shares street space with the College of Law and King's College London, and is a heartbeat away from the Royal Courts of Justice. A strange setting for somewhere so serene, but the juxtaposition serves to heighten the sense of escape.

Entering Cigalon's ethereal white space you feel truly transported, to a land of light and lavender, of cloudless climes and star anise. From the Tomette tiles paving the entrance and the white shuttered doors, to the high mirrors, lilac honeycomb trellising, and cicadas trilling through the speakers, the environment is almost a trompe l'oiel trick to fool you into thinking you're in Southern France. And I'm all for the illusion. It reminds me of the restaurants in Morocco, when, at the opening of a door, you can escape the snake charmers, tooth pullers and soothsayers of Marrakech's mad main square, and enter into the walled, fountain-filled, rose petal strewn bliss of a palatial pleasure dome.

I digress. Bypassing the City suits, my guest and I are seated in a plush lilac booth velveteen to the touch. Above us is a glass-domed ceiling, from which hang curious, white, birdcage-like fixtures filled with foliage. Our helpful waiter, sporting a fetching pair of lilac braces and a mauve tie, informs us that the restaurant is named after a 1935 film by Marcel Pagnol about a Provençal chef with delusions of grandeur. A Pagnol cocktail dutifully appears in a wide circular receptacle not unlike the Champagne glasses famously modeled on Marie Antoinette's breasts. Candy floss pink, it contains lychee, St Germain elderflower liqueur, pastis, vodka and cranberry, finished with a sprig of rosemary. Smooth, sharp and refreshing, it proves a delightful way to begin.

We continue with chunks of peasant bread dipped in olive oil and lashings of salty tapenade. Reading through the menu, I'm surprised at how sparse it is – just six starters, five mains and four specials. Simplicity seems to be key, with head chef Julien Carlon (of Comptoir Gascon fame) striving for authentic Provençal fare. I opt for the braised beef cannelloni in a red wine and bone marrow sauce to start, and am impressed by its tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture, paired with the rich, almost balsamic-like sauce. My companion's polenta with wild mushrooms and rocket is anything but boring – creamy and pleasantly grainy, it marries well with the earthy mushrooms and peppery rocket.

The main event is slightly more hit and miss. Not quite brave enough to order the lamb tripes and trotter stew, the waiter suggests the salt cod in a vegetable broth with aioli. It arrives Colgate white on a silver platter, atop a liferaft of vegetables in a sea of broth. The cod is well cooked, and made more interesting by the aioli, but I'm left deflated by the dish. My guest's rib of veal in Mentonaise sauce (a lemon and black olive dressing) provides more excitement. Perfectly pink, the veal sings with citrus, while the accompanying peppery chickpea fritters are fluffy and fun. The highlight is the unassuming black olive mash. Soft, creamy and comforting, I find myself scraping the bowl and craving for more.

The wine list is impressively weighted towards Provence – the first wine region in France to be cultivated – with cameos from Corsica. We're poured a biodynamic Viognier, L'Analepse, from Domaine Les Terres Promises. Having dined at Brawn the night before, I'm beginning to detect a thread weaving through natural wines. They're wonderfully unpredictable and frustratingly fickle. Deeply golden in colour, it neither smells nor tastes like a Viognier, but more like a slightly fizzy Fino, with oxidized aromas and a savoury finish.

And so to pudding - my moist cheese and lemon cake is lifted by the accompanying blackberry and lavender sorbet, while my guest's aniseed bitter chocolate tart arrives on a black slate next to a swash of goat's cheese curd. The rich chocolate paired with the salty curd makes for a curious, almost Heston-like combination of sweet and savory.

After adorable mini madeleines and mint tea, my companion and I retire to the Baranis bar below, which comes complete with an indoor petanque course. The subterranean space is all exposed brickwork, Pernod posters and stripy topped waiters, one of which whips up a Castaña cocktail for us - a creamy, chestnut concoction that sends us happily back into the rainy January night, after a blissful few hours cocooned in the lavender-scented bosom of Provence.

Cigalon 115 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PP, Tel: +44(0)20 7242 8373. A meal for two with wine, water and service costs around £100.

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