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Fay Maschler reviews Le Chabanais: We’ll always have Paris

In Paris in January I went to Le Chateaubriand, the restaurant of self-taught Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte, who is often credited with the flowering of the “bistronomie” movement. This year Le Chateaubriand resides at number 21 in the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. In the past it has perched higher and the backlash that inevitably ensues from these dopey inventories means people say “Oh, you should have gone soon after it opened [in 2006]. It’s not so good any more”.

I thought it was terrific. Situated in a faceless street in the untouristy 11th arrondissement, from outside it has that slightly miserabilist look that in Paris instils confidence. Inside there are the wooden chairs, a blackboard list of wines and shades of burgundy red that solidly reference bistro.

The fixed price €65 menu — a flourish of amuse-bouches followed by three main courses and desserts — mix tradition, invention and impertinence in a heady parade. I particularly liked the way raspberry powder was dusted onto a white plate to take the fingerprints of shrimps. Waiting staff are laid-back but also plugged into the notion of revolution and their wine knowledge — a lot of the stock is natural wines — is impressive.

In May I was one of the first out of the traps to try Le Chabanais, to all intents and purposes the London sibling of Le Chateaubriand, that has opened on Mount Street. We will draw a veil over that dinner. The restaurant closed soon after due to “mechanical issues” and reopened a month later.

Dover sole at Le Chabanais, Mayfair

Fine, upstanding fish: Dover sole under a lawn of chives (Picture: Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)What was apparently originally going to be a branch of the super-expensive New York Italian restaurant Nello — until a deal fell through — has, with the same Indian backers, become a joint production with Aizpitarte, with his head chef Paul Boudier now at the helm in London. Kevin Lansdown, late of Scott’s, up the road, is general manager.

Architect Clement Blanchet, who in tandem with Rem Koolhaas designed Le Dauphin, the wine bar adjoining Le Chateaubriand, has designed Le Chabanais. We can perhaps forgive the following statement of intent on the grounds that a) he is French and b) he is an architect: “If the past and the future had decided to celebrate the contemporary, Le Chabanais would be the result of their timeless pleasure.”

Patinated sheets of brass cover the floor and wrap the walls. The bar and tables are made of marble. Bits of foam stuck under the tables try in vain to absorb some of the dissonant noise that these unrelenting surfaces bat around the room. Large round tables stalking the centre of the space may, in Blanchet’s words, “promote new social configurations” but these require the waiting staff to walk the length of the room to get dishes to the diners.

I eat dinner in a party of five and then on another day have lunch with a friend so the unchanging menu — static anyway between Wednesday and Friday — priced à la carte, is well plumbed. A pattern emerges of protein hiding like a shy faun under the cover of vegetation. Sometimes it is bland, as in turbot folded in ribbons of courgette with fresh almonds and caper butter, sometimes a pointless game of hide and seek, as in secreto Iberico calling out plaintively from behind a camouflage of watercress and broccoli. Knackered pieces of mackerel recline under lovage and samphire.

A few dishes escape this template to their advantage. Chicken liver ravioli in fennel broth are elegant dumplings in a soup not overloaded with aniseedy flavour, something you can’t say about Basque squid stew where I (and Rick Stein actually) think there should be the powerful thump of ripe tomatoes, not just weedy dill fronds waving from an inky pond.

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Dover sole on the bone is a fine upstanding fish under a lawn of chives and finely cut green peppers. Veal sweetbread with smoked aubergine and a cascade of sesame seeds is also reckonable. An Indian friend who is visiting from Delhi says that the vegetable curry with fried rice is “a doomed effort to give the vegetarian wives of rich Indians something to eat while their husbands pair meat with overpriced red wine”. I was, for the duration of a main course, one of those vegetarian wives and I feel for them.

Everything is overpriced unless, I suppose, it is judged by Mount Street standards. It is hard to find anything on the wine list of note under £50. To finish a bottle of Domaine Léon Barral Faugères 2011, at £51, we ask for some cheese. There is consternation. There is no cheese. The highlight of desserts tried is jasmine crème brûlée, the low point a vapid chocolate mousse.

After nearly 10 years the owners of Le Chateaubriand probably wanted a nice comfortable cheque. But even as not so young men, they should have gone east and set themselves up alongside Clove Club, Lyle’s, Typing Room, Mission, Taberna do Mercado, Robin Gill’s Paradise Garage and others to show the esprit they possess in Paris, not park on the double yellow lines of Mayfair where, whatever the intentions, they will be judged by the wrong criteria and the wrong crowd.

8 Mount Street, W1 (020 7491 7078, Open Mon-Sat noon-3.30pm & 7pm-11pm.

A meal for two with wine, about £185 including 12.5 per cent service.


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