By Jonathan Hatchman, Food Editor, @TLE_Food
If the opening of higher-end restaurants from city lunch break outlets such as Pret A Manger and PAUL, over the past year or so, are anything to go by, it looks as though this increasingly popular step will become a huge food trend for 2016. In which case, it’s probably just a matter of time before EAT, itsu and Wasabi begin to introduce an a la carte menu, waiting staff and a dinner service. The concept behind the Pret A Manger evening restaurant is commendable, bringing reasonably priced food to the inner city instead of merely focusing on express breakfast and lunch foods. However, although Pret has become exceptionally popular – a salt beef sandwich and vegetable crisps washed down with a vitamin volcano doesn’t necessarily sound like a great evening meal. However, following the success of their first restaurant opening in Covent Garden at the end of last year, PAUL – the French café bakery – have recently moved into one of London’s most iconic skyscrapers for their second opening. Having fallen in love with the Paris outposts quite recently (they’re far superior to London’s), I couldn’t wait to visit Le Restaurant de PAUL.
Quite unfortunately, the premise is situated upon the ground floor of the building, so views aren’t quite as spectacular as the ones from Jason Atherton’s upstairs City Social. Instead, the only views from ‘the quiet corner’ are of flustered businessmen clambering into taxis to avoid the pouring rain. Inside, conversely, the décor is designed by Parisian duo Coorengel & Calvagrac and is intentionally evocative of the very first PAUL shop, opened in Lille in the 1950s. Bold greens, reds and blues inject some Google office playfulness into the restaurants interior, joined by ambient lighting and chic art deco fittings. As for the food, the menu offering is a far cry from the tiny PAUL shops scattered around central London. Of course, in true fashion there’s an in-house bakery, but the main focus is upon authentic French cuisine, featuring the likes of regional one-pot dishes, sharing platters, typical savoury snacks and even the addition of gourmet burgers for the less adventurous of diners.
To begin, a basket of freshly baked gougères au fromage (cheese filled savoury choux pastry) works as a delicious appetiser. These savoury treats would benefit from being served a little warmer and with more cheese filling, but the pastry is so well made that the overall dish is truly impressive. As is often the case, the starters are the most difficult to choose from, so with the gougères allowing us a little more time to decide, we begin with the wild boar terrine and the scallops, alas the latter are a little overcooked and thus texturally unappealing. The terrine is heavily gelatinous but it tastes deliciously unhealthy, although the tiny serving board does make it difficult to avoid spillage onto the table. Moving on, the daily special of seared halibut is cooked expertly and features a generous tranche of meaty fish that’s accompanied by wilted spinach and a buttery sauce to add a little more decadence, as if it were necessary. My companion’s boudin noir main, however, is the most tantalising order during our recent visit. Simplicity at its finest – a slab of iron-rich black pudding is flattered by poached pear segments that bring sweetness to the dish and work harmoniously.
As is also the case more often than not, I’m torn between two desserts: refreshing Eton Mess or classic, indulgent profiteroles? Fortunately our waiter suggests that the profiteroles are far superior and that I should try these, given that he’s never seen profiteroles grace the menu of an English restaurant. Can he really be serious? In fairness, nonetheless, I’ve never seen profiteroles anything like these in England. Instead of piping balls of choux pastry with cream and covering with a little chocolate sauce, these are more similar to Viennese biscuits held together with a layer of cream, slathered in a chocolate sauce richer than Bill Gates. Fortunately, the bottomless chocolate mousse is far more satiating. As expected, it’s also especially rich, but there’s a real childhood memory of devouring raw chocolate cake mix scraped from a mixing bowl, and its all the better for its nostalgic value. Having been unsure of exactly what to expect from Le Restaurant de PAUL, casting some small quibbles quibbles aside, it’s fair to admit that this new concept for the 125 year-old Bakery is just as impressive as it is innovative.
Le Restaurant de PAUL can be found at Ground Floor, Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street, London, EC2N 1HQ.