I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to the snails I’ve trampled in recent weeks. You know the scenario: rainy evening, dark path, and tiny bodies popping under your feet like porcelain baubles. It’s just a shame that they can’t live happily, shell-less, like an unencumbered-by-mortgage slug, or undergo a shell transplant, something like L'escargot Blanc has.
After a couple of months’ worth of overhaul, its livery has been repainted to a crisp white and, rather than an anonymous staircase leading up to the restaurant, they’ve taken over the ground floor barber shop and converted it into Bar a Vin.
“Now people are noticing us, even though we’ve been here for seven years,” said the waitress.
The new downstairs bar serves a selection of charcuterie, cheese and nibbles – “after work, chatting with pals” fare. However, we went upstairs to the busy restaurant for something more substantial.
It’s been a while since I visited, and it’s hard to tell if my memory is tatty and sepia toned or if that’s the way it actually looked before the make-over. I do remember a raclette machine in the corner, which is no longer in situ. Anyway, now it’s clean fawn and white, with the same wooden bistro tables and chairs, and French advertising paraphernalia for the Folies Bergère and Rita biscuits.
As well as the more expensive all day à la carte, they do a two course lunch for £11.90 or dinner for £13.90.
There are no light options, so don’t go if you’re on one of your fasting days. I haven’t gone nil by mouth since the first charity 24 Hour Famine in 1986, so I wasn’t restricting myself. From six options, we went for seared fillet of seabass (with £2.50 supplement), which featured a half fillet of crispy fish on a pile of creamy and faintly garam masala tinged celeriac, surrounded by drips of pesto. Good.
Our second fishy starter was the sardine rillette, which came with lots of additional extras, like a BOGOF deal. As well as the decent piscine paste, which was laced with finely chopped chilli and chive, there were croutons (as billed) but also a portion of smoked salmon and a dollop of black pepper and mustard seed laced crowdie. I don’t mind if I do.
A main course of parsley sprinkled cassoulet was as rustic as The Wurzels doing a rendition of Je Voudrais une Brand New Combine Harvester. In the pot, as well as flesh toned flageolet beans, there were thyme and cumin spiced caillettes made of minced Orkney mutton, each of which was wrapped in a raggedy dressing of caul fat. It was comforting and wholesome, with only a half-filled cassoulet dish, so as not to require a post lunch lie-down.
My pheasant breast and pie (£6.10 supplement) featured soft pieces of meat with a juicily tangy red cabbage and raisin mixture, as well as a quenelle of mash. It also came with a tall fairy house of poppy-seed studded pie, with a thick and fragrantly sagey filling but a rather thick and undercooked pastry cladding.
There was no almond and pear clafoutis (£5.50) left for pudding, so I went for île flottante (£5.50), and the waiter gave me a story about his granny making him vats of this when he was little. Either that tale made me shrink, or this was less of a floating island and more like the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Dunked into the vanilla-flecked crème Anglaise, there was a bath sponge-sized brick of frothy meringue with scales of flaked almond and a drizzle of caramel on top. Lovely, as was a sundae glass full of thumb-sized Agen prunes (£5.50) in Armagnac syrup.
The food is as good as always in this place, and it’s a honeytrap for folk who like to describe themselves as bon vivants (most of the diners on our visit were smartly dressed over-60s enjoying semi-liquid lunches).
To be honest, the Bar a Vin development was just my Trojan horse of an excuse to eat hearty French scran.
Oh, and it’s also provided a vehicle to apologise to the vast quantity of molluscs that I have pulped underfoot. Now I shall go and invest in some lighting for my path.
How much? Lunch for two, excluding drinks,