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Friday, 3 May 2013

La Grande Illusion

"A French lesson well learned at this reasonably priced Soho brasserie.... you will eat better here than in comparable establishments in Paris."
[Fay Maschler, restaurant critic writing about Brasserie Zedel.]

Ever since we first heard about it, we wanted to pay a visit to Brasserie Zedel, which is located in a small street near to London's Piccadilly Circus. We read good reviews of it in the press and friends reccommended it highly, warning us that it was necessary to book a table well in advance. We did as advised, and reserved the table at which we dined this evening.

From the moment that you step through its doors you are transported into the world of Art Deco. Though recently created, the decor cannot be faulted. The lively dining room was a tastefully glitzy marvel. The menu was full of promise: not too many items, but sufficient variety. We were served with good bread and glasses of water whilst we made up our minds about our choices. The waitress, who took our order, seemed to have difficulty understanding what we wanted. Perhaps, the background noise affected her hearing, or maybe her English was poor.

Things got off to a poor start when instead of the Parfait de Foie de Volaile that we had ordered, we were served a plate of Pate de Campagne de Maison, and were warned that it may contain pork. This was quickly rectified when we pointed out what had happened. My Soupe de Poisson et sa Rouille arrived as ordered. But what arrived was not quite what I expected. The soup that tasted no better than cheap fish soup from a can was lukewarm. There was no pot of rouille accompanying it. There were two tiny slices of toast next to the soup bowl. Each of these bore squidges of something resembling soft chewing gum to which was attached a few thin strands of cheese. Dutifully, I added these unappetising looking morsels to the soup. The chewing gum-like material dissolved in the soup, but did not improve its flavour in the slightest. My wife and daughter received their parfait, which was far from perfect.

The main courses arrived somewhat ominously covered by the kind of plastic lids used in NHS hospitals to keep patient's food warm. 

My daughter had ordered the promising sounding Poulet au Champagne. This had the appearance of something that had been cooked long ago and had then been left under a hot lamp to keep it warm. I tried a bit of the chicken; it was almost completely desiccated. My wife tried the dish of the day: Panaché de Poisson, Sauce Safran. Sounds promising, doesn't it?What arrived was a plate of rice on top of which there was an assortment of seafood fragments, a few pieces of chopped-up raw tomato, and a dried up stain, which might have once been a sauce. This dish, like the chicken, had a tired look about it. My Vol-au-Vent au Fruits de Mer looked less appetising than British Airways food in World Traveller Class (i.e. Economy Class), and tasted no better. The pastry case housing the slimy mixture of melancholic marine morsels and some ill-definable tasting sauce was far from being crumbly; it almost resisted being cut by a knife and was as tough as biltong. As for the overpriced and boring Salade Verte and the Pommes Frites that might well have been fried yesterday, the less said the better. Nothing that we were served tasted fresh.

I summoned the floor manager, and expressed our disappointment with the food, but said that as we had eaten much of it because we were hungry, we would settle what we owed. She apologised gracefully, and reduced our bill substantially. We left the establishment feeling let down. 

It is a shame that we cannot agree with the usually reliable Fay Maschler, whose words, which I quoted above, were published on Zedel's website.

To cheer ourselves after the meal, we repaired to Bar Italia in nearby Frith Street. This is a place where the décor is as much fun as at Zedel but is completely authentic. It has been a landmark in Soho since 1949, and the products, which it offers, are of the highest quality. Unlike Brasserie Zedel, it is more than simply a grande illusion.

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