MANY years ago, when I was working as a cub-reporter for a tabloid newspaper in Scotland, I was sent on “Rod Stewart duty”. I had no idea what that meant, but judging by my colleagues’ sneers, I knew it wasn’t a good thing. It turned out Rod Stewart duty meant waiting outside the ageing pop star’s favourite Glasgow restaurant, Rogano, in the hope he might say something vaguely newsworthy, which he never did.
Rod, the least Scottish Scotsman in the world, only came up during big Celtic games, which happen to fall during Glasgow’s rainy season between August and July. The key to Rod Stewart duty was to get to the restaurant nice and early, before Rod arrived, so you didn’t have to stand in the rain for too long and could catch him before he’d got too sloshed. Alas, this time Rod snuck in through the back entrance, which meant I had to stand outside for three hours, rain water up to my ankles, thinking this journalism lark wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Eventually he appeared, carefully placing one foot in front of the other in a carefully studied approximation of a walk. He’d had one or two. Then he’d had some more. I marched up to him, yelling through the wind “Did you enjoy your meal?” He looked up, cocking his head in concentration, his expression like a labrador staring into a television set, desperately searching for meaning. Then he snatched my notepad. This threw me: nobody teaches you what to do, as a young reporter, when Rod Stewart nicks your notepad. Next, he took a biro out of his pocket, scrawled something in the slow, careful manner of a child tracing a complex Esher sketch, and handed it back. In the bewildered seconds I spent staring at it, he shuffled off. As he went, his minder put his arm around him and said, in a voice both weary and sympathetic: “No Rod, he was a journalist: he didn’t want your autograph.”
Rod Stewart isn't the only one with a fetish for Rogano. It inspires a fierce loyalty, almost despite itself. It’s the kind of place you go out of your way to eat, but you’re not quite sure why. On the face of it, it’s nice enough – art deco fittings, decent food – but there are a million better restaurants in London and a fair few in Glasgow. There's something about it, though; an idiosyncrasy, a certain je ne sais quoi. London has loads of places like that. If you’re hungry in Soho and only have a tenner in your wallet, there’s the Stockpot. If you’re in the City and don’t mind being told to shove off before your dessert plate has been cleared, there’s Sweetings.
This is the sort of restaurant Michelin-starred chef Thierry Laborde and his cohorts Yann Chevris and Pascal Lavorel (a "celebrity florist", apparently) seemed to have in mind when they opened Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis in Knightsbridge. It’s a bit ramshackle, it looks well worn despite only opening a couple of years ago. It has its menu written on a big mirror and a jaunty sign stencilled on the window. It’s a place you might take someone on a first date if you wanted to show you have personality.
Now the trio have opened a second restaurant, Chabrot Bistrot des Halles, next to Smithfield Market. The aesthetic they are going for this time is “the Frenchest place in the world”. The walls are covered with black and white photos of French men sporting French moustaches, dragging the corpses of French cows across French markets (the cows have presumably been kept in the most inhuman possible conditions because, you know, je les emmerde, ils sont juste des vaches). It has red, velvety banquettes and nice thick tablecloths that look like they have been hand-woven by peasants somewhere near Nantes.
I was there on a Friday evening and it was packed with couples on dates. A bloke who looked like Al Murray the Pub Landlord – maybe it was Al Murray the Pub Landlord – looked like he was tanking with a good looking young girl who kept yawning and checking her phone.
Being incredibly French, Chabrot serves things like grilled tripe and calves head and, of course, veal. I started with the warm duck liver pate (actually, I started with the “Pâté de foie de canard tiède, gougère au Comté” – the whole menu is written in French with translations); a coarse, hearty starter served with what looks like a giant Yorkshire pudding (which was far too big for the small bowl of pâté; like serving a naan to mop up a splodge of caviar).
The guest went for the crispy squid, which was well cooked but lacked oomph, needing more than the light seasoning it came with.
As the French waitress took the drinks order she gave me an Anne Robinson wink. She did it again when she took our mains order. “Don’t write about it,” said my guest. “It’s a French thing. She’s nice.” She was nice and it turned out she wasn’t even French. She was Cuban. Maybe it’s a Cuban thing. Anyway, as I knew I was going to be reviewing the place, I tried to extricate the menu from its plastic sheath so I could keep track of the price. The waitress flashed me a look as if to say, “What do you think you’re doing to my menu”.
“He’s kind of a big deal,” said my guest sarcastically.
“Yeah, how on earth do you deal with him?” replied the waitress.
On the recommendation of the chef, I went for the lamb cutlets for my main, which was solid: well cooked on the grill, no faffing around, very good quality meat. My guest’s corn-fed baby chicken was even better; tender and succulent, a coating of lemon and chilli giving it a tandoori-like intensity. This is where good baby chickens go when they die. The side of asparagus vinaigrette was very nice too, although not cheap at £9.50.
A French bistrot needs to get dessert right; Chabrot mostly does. A trio of sweets included a fluffy mousse topped with a prune (Laborde has a thing about prunes – they pop up all over the place), a madeleine that erred a little on the dry side and an incredible, rich tartlet. The raspberry sorbet was spot on.
Laborde’s cooking is a lesson in how not to over-complicate food. Buy decent ingredients, cook them well, serve. Easy, that: we should all open restaurants. Piece of cake. Sometimes, though, he takes his philosophy too far, his dishes a little too simplistic. But it’s a bistro, not a fine dining restaurant. You can tell by the jaunty stencil on the window. And it’s a nice one at that. Give it a few months to grow into itself, get some wine spilled on it, and it might even end up with Rod Stewart staggering in.
Chabrot Bistrot des Halles
62-63 Long Lane, Smithfield, EC1A 9EJ
Tel: 020 7796 4550
Food: Four stars
Value: Three stars
Atmosphere: Four stars
Cost for two with wine: £110