Sunday, 23 September 2007

Comptoir Gascon

Nowhere is abstinence from bread and cheese more painful than in a French restaurant. As your fellow diners tuck into warm, stretchy baguette, yeasty pain de campagne or a nice slice of chewy walnut and raisin bread, you can only pick at a small bowl of olives. While there's nothing wrong with olives - in fact there's a lot right with a big creamy green olive - there's nothing like a slice of fresh bread coated in a thick layer of salted butter. Luckily the two courses I tucked into at Comptoir Gascon last night steered my attention away from an obvious lack of cheese and bread-based treats, which is no mean feat as our table nuzzled right up to an open topped fridge full of cheese on one side and another full of patisserie on the other.
Comptoir Gascon is the informal little brother of Club Gascon, chef Pascal Aussignac's heavyweight gastronome's paradise just across Smithfield meat market in London. While Club Gascon and its wine offshoot Cellar Gascon nestle in a quiet, distinctly upmarket corner of Smithfield, Comptoir sits in an unprepossessing row of bars and nightclubs. Last night this corner of Smithfield was jostling with clubbers gearing up for a long and heavy night on the pills. The fanbase for Comptoir Gascon, a cross between a bistro and delicatessen dedicated to the food of South Western France, couldn't be more different. Testament to its moneyed weekday clientele from the city and surrounding media enclave, the bistro slowly filled with thirtysomethings hoping for Aussignac's meticulous unfussy cooking without Club Gascon's hefty price tag.
The stripped brick and steel interior couldn't be more different from the hushed tones and lashings of marble across the square. A big refectory table sat next to round tables for twos and fours. This mix-and-match approach to seating makes the place more casual but also means that your neighbours could easily eat from your plate or top up your glass.
Apart from this intrusive level of intimacy with other diners, Comptoir Gascon gets everything else right, especially for the intolerant eater. After a quick consultation with the kitchen via the head waiter, I started with a tartare of sea bass with tomato. The sea bass arrived on a rectangular piece of flint. The Flintstone crockery aside, the fish was decidedly meaty but delicate. Chopped into small cubes and mixed with equally small pieces of tomato, the sea bass was presented in a generous quenelle, which sat on one side of the Stone Age plate. A couple of generous slices of a beefy tomato sat on the other with a few fronds of rocket for company. The combination was hardly straight from the peasant tables of Gascony (apart from the plates, perhaps) but the tomato and rocket gave the Japanese-style fish more than a hint of Mediterranean.
If the starter was a nod to South Europe, then the main course had more nods to that region than a Metallica concert. Chunks of seared tuna and roasted fennel arrived under a wave of citrus foam. Again the presentation was rustic (a rusty oven dish left over from the Iron Age) but the flavours were anything but unsophisticated. The fennel was subtle and the fish was tender. The whole thing sat bathing in the sea of orange sauce, which revealed itself once the foam had cleared. And the chunky French fries cooked in duck fat didn't exactly disappoint either.
Okay, I didn't get the slate of cheese to finish (and yes, it really is served on a slate) but so what? I got subtlety, balance and a whiff of my Southern European roots. Oh, and I didn't get the indigestion which kept my husband awake all night. There's something to be said for laying off three kinds of bread and four types of cheese (and, it has to be said, foie gras, red wine and beef in bordelaise sauce) after all.

Comptoir Gascon, 63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HA

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