Paris above the rooftops of London, hard to believe isn’t it? But I think Brasserie Blanc has pulled it off – certainly in the food, if not vista department. The former Chez Gerard in the Covent Garden piazza is now transformed into a French brasserie – the latest acquisition of my favourite French chef Raymond Blanc. If you blink, you may miss the entrance but once up some stone steps and past a generous rooftop patio you enter a light and spacious restaurant.
On one side, Drury Lane and on the other, views directly into the market and the performers. As I said, it’s a big space. The site includes a 40-seat ‘Bar Blanc’, a 40-seat ‘Little B’ private bar and a ‘Blanc Creperie’ on the ground floor with outside seating in the Piazza.
The menu reads nothing like the haute cuisine Raymond produces at Le Manoir but it’s not supposed to, however, what you are assured of is a relaxed French brasserie experience with great food to match. The menus are, as you’d expect, seasonal and change each month. There’s a lot of choice on each section of the menu and the starters include Maman Blanc’s miscellany of salads (£7.50); hot smoked salmon (£9.20); grilled soused Cornish mackerel with a fennel salad (£7.80) and a fair choice for the vegetarians among you.
I only visit chain restaurants as a last resort, I’m far more interested in independence and individuality, although when invited for lunch here, I made a rare exception as I was really keen to see what Monsieur Blanc was up to, in Covent Garden – an area burgeoning with chains and choice.
It was only fitting that I began my meal with demi-douzaine d’Escargots à la Bourguignonne (£8.60) also known as ‘The Great White’. These were well cooked so you can forget past bad experiences – if you’ve had your fair share of snails you will definitely have experienced badly cooked ones that are reminiscent of chewing a tied balloon mouthpiece. The garlic butter was second-to-none and there was no shortage in the parsley department.
Thank goodness for the basket of sourdough which acted as a butter sponge and helped me to soak up the unctuous sauce. I did, however, pay the price – I had to share the bread and garlic butter and spent at least 5 minutes in the ladies toilet mirror picking out flecks of herb from my teeth. However, with the windows open, and a performer on a violin, even the loo was an agreeable place.
Mum doesn’t drink wine, she does spirits during the day, and had a couple throughout the meal. I didn’t fancy red wine so opted for the Languedoc white of Picpoul de Pinet. A crisp, dry white wine best served with smoked fish and cheese but it didn’t really matter too much to me – I’m not a massive wine snob – and I thought it worked well with my snails and steak.
I love the atmosphere here and there’s a real mix of diners. There are tables of business folk, families, and women just lunching after a day’s shopping on the kitten heels. The waiters buzz around dressed in black and white with the traditional brasserie burgundy-coloured apron, carrying oversized trays full of food.
For the families there’s a free, organic carrot puree on offer for your baby and then for children up to 8 years, a small set menu – grilled corn-fed chicken; fish cakes, macaroni cheese and Maman Blanc’s salad. Ice cream and sorbet too. For the older kids you can order anything on the menu with the initials JB in half portions.
My dining partner is my Mum, a sweet-toothed gal who always reserves her sparrow-like appetite for dessert usually without even bothering to see what’s on offer. As expected, she skips the starters and goes straight for the main course. Her choice is made easy by dressed Brixham crab and French fries (£14.60) being on the menu – thank the Lord there was something for the fussiest of eaters.
I chose another French staple and when it comes to steak tartare (£20.00), I’ve had that many in a variety of restaurants, I’m confident I know my stuff. Could they live up to my exacting palate? Good quality filet steak is a given, a free-range golden egg yolk, a good smattering of capers, shallots, gherkins and a little Dijon – I do not do Tabasco. They’ve got the perfect recipe here – what a dish! Exactly as a I remember from my teens when I first tasted it in France, this came with shoestring fries and a crispy green salad. No seasoning needed. Absolutely Perfect.
There are plenty of dishes I’d definitely return to try including slow braised lamb shoulder with olives (£19.70); beef stroganoff with pilaf rice (£13.20); Toulouse sausages with onion gravy and smooth mash (£10.70); grilled squid and courgettes, with a rocket and parmesan salad (£17.80). There’s also a section for steak lovers – fillet to Chateaubriand – all served with fries but they’re happy to swap these for salad or new potatoes. Their meat is free range and sourced from farms across Cornwall.
There is also a long list of side dishes to choose from all around the £3.00 mark.
After our mains, we stood up to watch the entertainment in the Market, unfortunately a direct view is blocked by a frosted window, I assume because no one would leave the restaurant if there was.
We look over the dessert menu and Mum had said she wanted anything made with chocolate before she saw it, but then changed her mind when she saw the Brasserie Blanc baked Alaska for 2 (£13.50) which we order. A beautiful cake-shaped meringue-piped dish arrives, which is lit with great theatrics at our table. Unfortunately, the bright restaurant takes away the Olympic torch-like effect and we watch the meringue turn from white to brown. A menu makes an effective flame extinguisher. Spoons in and an air-filled sponge soaked in Grand Marnier with a hard vanilla studded ice cream. The meringue is crunchy on the exterior and soft and marshmallow-like as you dig in. A generous portion, too much for two of us but we manage to eat it all because it is fantastic.
Also on offer is a lemon cream savarin (£5.90); Varlhona chocolate crumble (£6.40); Summer berry Pavlova (£5.30) and a selection of seasonal French, British or Irish cheeses: PetitMorin, Munster, Pavé Blessois, Perl Las. (£8.50).
We finish on coffee which is the kick-start we need to get us back on our feet and back down the stairs, into the hustle and bustle of a city we had forgotten about for a couple of hours.
The set menus are excellent value from £10.95 for two courses and three courses for £16.45 – all available each day until 6.30pm. An evening set menu, again for two courses is £14.00. The choice of food on offer isn’t bad either, as set menus go. Starters include a pea and mint soup, an egg, potato and leek salad and a summer ratatouille. For the mains, expect a French onion and Gruyère tart, with a crisp green salad; roast belly of pork; salmon and fish cakes. The desserts are pretty special too with a raspberry fool; caramalised bananas with chocolate mousse and Chantilly cream; and poached plums, vanilla ice cream and a cat’s tongue biscuit.
If you live in the capital there are also branches at Chancery Lane, Charlotte Street, Southbank, Threadneedle Street, St Paul’s and The Tower of London and if you don’t worry not, you can experience Brasserie Blanc in – and it’s here I take a massively deep breath - Bath, Berkhamsted, Bristol, Cheltenham, Chichester, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Portsmouth, St Albans and Winchester.
Will I go back? Absolutely. Brasserie Blanc serves great food with excellent service, all of which tastes delicious and won’t dent the wallet. This is a chain I’d recommend and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on those established out-of-town.