Readers whose interest in the natural world extends beyond eating it may remember the story of Kumbuka, London Zoo’s breakout social media star of summer 2016. The silverback gorilla downed five litres of undiluted blackcurrant squash before hurling himself at the visitors videoing Kumbuka on the other side of a reinforced glass window. No humans were harmed in the making of this film.
Sitting in Club Gascon, I knew how Kumbuka felt. Tourists pressing their faces against the glass of Club Gascon’s windows as they file down to St Bartholomew the Great church can make a meal here feel like being on the receiving end of feeding time at the zoo. But at least London’s best south-west French wine list is unlikely to induce the same homicidal sugar rush as blackcurrant squash.
Club Gascon opened in 1998 when Clerkenwell was a proto-Shoreditch on the edge of the City and a night out in EC1 felt as edgy as dinner in Tottenham would today. It served mini portions of Gascon cooking in cramped surroundings when the idea of small plates to share was something you would only encounter on holiday in Spain.
Club Gascon interior with marble panelling
When Club Gascon won a Michelin star in 2002, it was taken as a sign that the guide was loosening up by rewarding a restaurant where the tables were on top of each other and dishes arrived as and when they were ready.
Club Gascon is much more grown-up these days – even more so after it re-opened in October from a refurb, with colour-pop chairs set at well-spaced tables and marble panelling on the walls. No one peering through the window in 2017 could mistake Club Gascon for anything other than a gilt-edged, Michelin-starred proposition.
But the biggest sign of changing times is on the menu. When the restaurant opened, there were half a dozen foie gras dishes; these days there are half that on a menu now split into three sections, designed to reflect chef-patron Pascal Aussignac’s thoughts on the past, present and future of dining. Alas, Pascal’s pensées make for rather dispiriting reading, with a future that involves lots of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes.
I’ll stay stuck in the past, thanks very much, because the three foie gras dishes I ate were in a different league to everything else here. A turrón is usually a tablet of nougat; here it is a slab of foie served with a Bailey’s and passion fruit sauce, a sweet and savoury flavour bomb that was hands down the best thing I have eaten all year.
Club Gascon’s brilliant sommelier Julian Sarrasin told me that the ancient Egyptians ate foie gras as a pudding, a pyramid scheme well worth reviving.
Foie Gras «Eclade», pine mushroom and razor clams
To start, the same foie gras terrine turned up more classically with a sauce made from figs, Banyuls wine and Argan oil, and also roasted and presented under a razor clam, a brilliant contrast of shellfish salinity and livery silkiness.
A couple of other dishes were almost as good. Millionaire chocolate pudding was as bitterly rich as Howard Hughes, while a pre-dessert thimbleful of prune soaked in Armagnac with orange and Armagnac cream deserves upgrading to full-size status.
But there were some misfires, too. Roasted sturgeon with leeks and crispy bone marrow was a very timid dish for something that sounds like one of the wilder political fantasies of Ruth Davidson. And a pre-starter of «cassoulet revisited» was deconstructed to the point it looked more like cassoulet regurgitated; amuse bouches of truffle sandwiches and glazed grapes rolled in walnuts and fennel seeds were more welcome warm-ups.
Club Gascon, 57 W Smithfield, London EC1A 9DS; clubgascon.com