Hidden away in a cobbled mews in Smithfield is one of the area’s oldest restaurants. Launched in 1986 and named for its proximity to Smithfield Market, Le Café du Marché is a family owned French restaurant.
Founded by Charlie Graham-Wood, whose family came from Lyon, and now owned and run by his daughter, Sophie, the ambition for Le Café du Marché was to serve honest authentic French food to London. The recently renovated venue’s atmosphere certainly conveys memories of restaurants visited on family holidays to the French countryside, but with an air of sophistication. The flickering candle light, intimate setting and live jazz music certainly sets the scene for the rest of the evening.
I’d recommend brushing up on your French before a visit – the handwritten menu will require a little bit of knowledge of the language, though nothing that would make it inaccessible. The frequently changing seasonal menu includes one soup, one main and one fish dish that changes daily depending on what is available at Smithfield Market. In our case, it’s leek and celeriac soup, sea bream with tarragon and guinea fowl.
While we explore the menu (and I attempt to remember my A-level French), we sample the restaurant’s homemade baguette and butter. Honestly, I would have been happy to stick with that all evening. The bread was sensational: the crust just the right kind of crunchy, a perfect crumb and a lovely fluffy centre. But things were about to get much better.
Despite my current obsession with burrata, we opted for black pudding, poached egg and salad and roasted baby carrots. The black pudding was served just gently heated, atop a mound of frisée and a handful of croutons. Perhaps the portion of greens could be a little smaller, to better balance with the remaining dish, but that’s a small change to make. The important parts: black pudding and poached egg were cooked perfectly, the runny yolk adding a wonderful richness to the spiced fresh black pudding. A classic dish, with no room for error.
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The roasted carrots, lightly dressed in olive oil, were served with puy lentils and feta cheese. Each individual element was prepared wonderfully, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves without too much fuss: the sweetness of the carrots, the saltiness of feta, the earthiness of the soft lentils. But it’s as a whole that this dish truly shines. I would happily come back for this starter any time. I suspect I’m not the only one. It seems a popular choice amongst my fellow diners, many of whom seem to know the venue and its staff well. Repeat business, it seems, is not a problem here and so far, I completely understand why.
For mains (each served with chips and salad to share) we ordered the fish daily special and the Cassoulet maison. The sea bream, being a subtle yet meaty fish, benefitted from simple cooking with tarragon. A perfect way to let the visitor enjoy the fish for what it is: fresh. The accompanying creamed corn was a lovely idea, though in this instance it seemed to be missing something. Perhaps just a little more seasoning. The cassoulet, on the other hand, couldn’t have been better. Both the duck leg and sausages were deftly cooked and served with soft white beans with a hint of mustard. The duck meat fell off the bone and dissolved in the mouth, while the sausage meat added an extra layer of flavour to the otherwise fairly subtle dish.
For dessert – while other options were available – we opted for another simple option: blackcurrant sorbet, and while of course this didn’t set our world on fire, it most certainly put a lovely full stop at the end of our evening.
Overall, the food and the service is superb, while the atmosphere allows for anything from a business meeting (of which there were a few) to a romantic date by candlelight. At two courses for £33.50 or three for £38.50, Le Café du Marché will most certainly not break the bank, boasting good value for money.
Le Café du Marché can be found at 22 Charterhouse Square, London, EC1M 6DX.