Club Gascon is 13 years old! And to celebrate, owner chef Pascal Aussignac decided to hold a special birthday night during which he offered his original 1998 menu at, wait for it, 1998 prices! I was quick to book a table…
I haven't been to any of Aussignac's restaurants but have tasted his cooking (and chatted to him about it) at a food festival last year and I have a copy of his beautiful book, Cuisinier Gascon, which I reviewed previously.
The birthday date duly arrives, and we choose to drive into town for a change, parking in the handy Smithfield car park directly opposite the restaurant, and very reasonable at just £2 an hour. For those who don't know, Club Gascon is located next to the famous Smithfield wholesale meat market, within the heart of the City of London. Nearest tube stations are Farringdon and Barbican.
The restaurant is traditionally decorated, fairly opulent and much smaller than I expected.
As we are given our menus we are advised that, with the size of the dishes, they recommend 4 courses per person, including a starter from la route du sel or les foie gras, a dish from the section labelled le potager, which would make good side vegetables for dishes from l'océane and les pâturages, and of course something from les douceurs.
As the names match closely to the chapters in Aussignac's book I immediately understand la route de sel to mean snacks, le potager as vegetable dishes, l'océane as fish and seafood, les pâturages as pastures (which are the landscapes Aussignac associates with poultry, game, pork, lamb, beef and veal). Les douceurs are, of course, sweets.
With some menu explanations from our friendly waiters, we are soon ready to order, deciding to share 8 different dishes between us.
An amuse is presented as duck heart with Dauphinoise potatoes, though when it's served to a neighbouring table half an hour later, I hear it described as duck heart with Sarladaise potatoes. As Sarladaise potatoes are usually loose and separate slices fried in garlic, the layered cube certainly looks more like Dauphinoise. Perhaps it's a combination of both? In any case, it's good, with a crisp top and soft body. The duck heart is intensely meaty, firm but not chewy.
Although the very beautiful handmade side dishes have a butter knife on them, I seem to put a spanner in the works by asking for some butter to have with my bread. It takes a while, and I am just about to check whether it's been forgotten, when a slate appears with a quenelle of Chantilly butter with pine nuts on top and a cube of smoked and salted butter, both of which are very nice indeed.
Our first three dishes come together:
The Farmhouse Jambon de Bayonne is sweet and soft with decent stripes of white fat. Unusually for me, I like the pickled chilli too; it doesnt have any heat but has a distinctive flavour.
The Warm Flan of Foie Gras Bordelaise takes our collective breath away! A light but incredibly rich savoury custard packed full of foie gras flavour in a slightly sweet red wine reduction sauce, it's truly truly fabulous. We grin at each other over every single mouthful.
For me, the Duck Foie Gras Mi Cuit aux Piquillos is nice but only nice. The black lacy crackers are both attractive and give a nice crunch but don't taste much of anything. And the sweet jelly is good, though again no distinct flavour is obvious. But for me I don't feel that red chilli peppers are a great flavour match for foie gras. In addition, the foie gras is much softer and more spongy in texture than the usual firm feel of mi cuit.
(I wrote a handy list of foie gras terminology in a previous post, for those who want to know more).
Next up are our choices from les paturages, along with a side dish from le potager.
The Roast Confit of Duck Creme Forte is excellent. The duck is tender inside with a generous layer of crispy skin. And oh my, that sauce! Very finely diced raw shallots in cream give a great textural contrast to the duck meat. It's a generous portion too.
An Old Fashioned Cassoulet Toulousain is just as it should be. The sausage is the winner in this dish, so meatylicious!
For our side dish, we cannot resist ordering Home Made French Fries and Crazy Salt. We never work out what crazy salt is but these duck fat fried chips are, without doubt, the best I have ever had. Anywhere. And yes I've had Heston's at The Hinds Head.The best!
We are full, but we're not going to be defeated, we go ahead and order dessert.
Eagle eyed among you may notice that this little beauty looks familiar. Yes, the Warm Flan of Foie Gras Bordelaise was so good, so very very good, that we have ordered a second one to enjoy as a pre-dessert. And it is as magnificent the second time around!
Velvety Praline Ice Cream & Mikado comes in another pretty handmade bowl. The mikado is just a plain pastry stick, a little disappointing actually, would have loved to see it half dipped in chocolate like the boxed Mikado biscuits. But the ice cream is just as smooth as its name promises and intensely hazelnutty.
Having tried the Gascon Mess before, I insisted (with very little resistance, it should be said) that we order a portion of Aussignac's variation of a classic Eton Mess. The whipped cream is laced with Armagnac, and instead of fresh berries Aussignac uses dried fruits (either prunes or dates, I'm not sure) which are also soaked in the alcohol. It's reminiscent of Christmas mincemeat though not as spicy, and the pink meringues are a pretty touch. As you can see, we make quick work of it!
Our meal has been marvellous.
Service is warm, attentive and helpful and I particularly appreciate the attention given to refilling our glasses of tap water the moment they are low. The staff work as a cohesive team and, between them, are instantly aware of any customer needs.
And I must comment on the crockery; I've particularly loved all the different and pleasingly quirky serving plates and slates; much more interesting than a perfectly matched but boring set.
Before we leave, I have both my menu and my copy of Aussignac's book (that I brought from home for this very purpose) signed, and am invited to pop down to the busy kitchen for a brief but genuine greeting from Aussignac and his team, focused on feeding their enthusiastic diners. It's good to be able to wish them a Happy Birthday in person.
As we walk happily back to our car, we both agree that we must come back soon to sample Aussignac's 2011 menu.