Rocking up to the hidden gem, I was wooed by its sherbet lemon façade. Inside, the living room-like interiors are a soothing shade of beige, so soothing in fact, they almost act as a visual lullaby. On my visit, the restaurant is disconcertingly bare on arrival, but soon fills up with smartly dressed, softly spoken locals. Hung on the walls are curious paintings of vegetables, from masculine asparagus spears to the feminine folds of an artichoke. The flora and fauna theme continues on the plant-strewn menu, and even in the loos, which are prettified by sketches of bilberries and wild flowers.
My dining companion and I begin with a chilled glass of Gosset NV, Roussillon’s house Champagne. Crisp and fresh and yet with a biscuit and brioche-laced richness, it makes for a deliciously refreshing drop. To accompany our apéritif, we are offered a colourful trio of nibbles: pickled quails eggs masquerading as giant olives, sweet and sour macadamia nuts, and a childlike bubblegum pink smoked salmon and beetroot mousse. The teriyaki-soaked macadamia nuts are irresistibly moreish, while the light and airy smoked salmon mousse proves a trompe l’oeil trick, its vivid pink colour implying sweetness and yet delivering a surprisingly savoury mouthful. The arrival of the bread basket brings gasps of delight, the croquette-shaped brioche and salted butter proving a particularly pleasing highlight.
An intercourse follows perhaps aiming to show off its veggie credentials – a creamy green pea and asparagus velouté with a hint of white truffle, which arrives warm and slides down my throat easily in a comforting start to proceedings. Bypassing the veggie friendly seven-course “garden” menu, dinner begins in earnest with a langoustine carpaccio prettily displayed around the edge of the plate amid a garden of cherry tomatoes, artichokes and sprigs of green. In the centre lies a disc of clear tomato jelly, and atop, a generous dollop of salty sustainable caviar. Light, fresh and palate cleansing, Roussillon’s vegetarian roots are once again firmly on display.
To follow is a deliciously rich cheese soufflé bobbing amid a cheesy moat. Its piping hot interior oozes liquid cheese, doubling for central heating on this cool night like an oligarch’s cheese on toast. The main event: poussin and foie gras with wild mushrooms, mashed potato and green beans in a Duke of Clarence Madeira sauce is deliriously decadent, the heady Madeira sauce perfectly complementing the succulent little bird and creamy mash, though after less than half I’m defeated, the rich foie gras erring on the sickly side.
Despite feeling stuffed as a pillow, our affable waiter insists we order pudding, promising modest portions. I opt for the lemon tart, while my companion is lured by the sticky toffee pudding. My hunk of tart, which arrives on a black slate with a crème brûlée-like roof, is as large as a pizza slice. Undeterred, I plunge my fork in and am rewarded with intensely zingy lemon curd-like innards enhanced by the glass-like shard of burnt sugar on top. Swimming in a sea of banana foam, the moist sticky toffee pudding is soothingly sweet.
Roussillon’s wine list is unsurprisingly focused on southern France, with welcome cameos from Turkey and the Lebanon. On our visit, we begin with a glass of creamy Vondeling Chardonnay 2008 from Paarl in South Africa that charms with its rich nose of buttered popcorn and hot buttered toast. To match with our mains, our smiley Hungarian sommelier, who insisted on being called Garry, recommends a home-grown drop: Pannonhalmi Apatsagi Pinot Noir 2009; once made by Benedictine monks. A pretty, feminine Pinot with a bright nose of raspberries, cherries and hints of spice, its smooth, soft and silky palate serves as wonderful proof of the heights Hungarian reds can reach when lovingly encouraged.
Though perfectly pleasant, Roussillon is lacking that all-important sparkle ignited and kept aflame by Gauthier. While the food is consistently good, it’s bereft of the flair and playfulness that once made it great. Roussillon is a grown-up restaurant for grown-up diners. It isn’t trying to be cool or hip, but rather coast along comfortably as a sedate, romantic hideaway for discreet locals. Perhaps Hughes will bring the sleeping beauty back to life?
Roussillon: 16 St. Barnabas Street, London SW1W 8PB; Tel: +44 (0)20 7730 5550; an eight-course tasting menu costs £75.